For many practitioners, falconry has ethereal, almost poetic, qualities. It provides real contact with nature; with the wind; with the ways of wild animals and their wild habitats; with the raw beauty and power of birds of prey in flight; with the privilege of watching them do what they do naturally; with being accepted as an ally in their endeavours; and with the mutual respect that such a partnership can generate.
If you ask a passionate falconer what enjoyment he gets from the sport, he will probably tell you that it has something to do with watching a bird of prey that he has nurtured and trained behave as if she were in partnership with the falconer. If you ask him to elaborate, he might add that what’s important is the quality of her flights: the extent to which she shows determination, commitment, courage, skill and style in flying or chasing her quarry. Thats storytelling for business. Press him even further, and he might tell you that what really matters is the whole experience, which means not just being in a natural environment on any particular day, but also – with and through his hawk – being an active part of it.
This is the point at which you will tap into his real passion and his addiction. Every outing with a trained and experienced hawk has the potential to put her handler through the whole gamut of emotions from despair to ecstasy, and play havoc with his adrenaline levels. As an activity, it is not only physically and emotionally demanding, but also intellectually challenging. For some, it is even spiritually fulfilling.
The sport also has an important historical perspective. Recorded falconry extends back at least four thousand years. At that time, it was already a well-established activity with a cultural as well as a practical dimension. Since then, falconers have learned to solve the problems of training, controlling and maintaining free-flying hawks in a different way, but the activity itself is essentially the same. In this respect it provides links, emotional, spiritual and empirical, with our remote ancestors. Through these links, it has the potential to put any modern human being back in touch with their natural roots. In fact, developing an understanding of wild animals, their habitat requirements and their behaviour is essential for success.
The vast majority of falconers are committed conservationists, and it is easy to see why. The destruction of any piece of woodland, moorland, open waste or set-aside land, hedgerow, meadow, marshland, pond, pasture or other natural environment is a threat to their activity because it destroys not only the habitats needed to fly hawks but also the wildlife depending on them.
Yet the sport itself has little or no impact on wildlife populations. No falconer would be foolish enough to suggest that he could eradicate, for example, a plague of rabbits on a farmer’s land in exchange for permission to fly his bird there. One bird of prey, wild or otherwise, simply isn’t capable of making that kind of impact. No shooting man would come back from a day with nothing in the bag and declare it a success. Yet falconers regularly do this because they celebrate both the hawk flying well and the quarry escaping. Of course, they would like results for them and the hawk, but it is not central to the sport. It is one without greed; indeed, greed is damaging for the hawk and the sport as a whole.
People have been practising falconry since the beginning of recorded time and across almost every continent. It is one of very few activities which can claim to be part of humankind’s general cultural inheritance, just like working a dog or riding a horse. In 2016 UNESCO added falconry (the hunting sport) to the list of ‘intangible cultural heritage of mankind’, a fitting accolade for an ancient activity which still captivates falconers today.