The title may appear odd – but please bear with me. I retired from full time work in 2018 and my work colleagues kindly presented me with a day for two hunting with falcons at a well-known Perthshire hotel. So it was that Mrs Read and I headed off not really knowing what was in store for the day.
As you would expect of such a fine establishment we received a friendly welcome and were introduced to our falconer for the day. The plan was simple, take two experienced Harris hawks and hunt in one area in the morning, lunch in Auchterarder then take a young hawk (in training) together with an older hawk and hunt in another area in the afternoon. I would just like to say at this point that the hawks, eagles, owls and falcons at the hotel are very well looked after and they are rotated for ‘duty’ with the public in a very structured and organised way allowing them free time as well as working time.
First thing we learned was that although the hawks are free to fly where they choose they are fitted with radio transmitters on their tails in case they do a runner, or flier to be more correct. Not that they have ever lost one albeit some can disappear for a day or two before they are tracked down.
The second thing was that as far as the hawks were concerned we 3 people were part of their team as in the wild they hunt as a group. So, we humans had a job to do and this was the first variance from what you might expect when you go hunting with animals as you tend to use them to identify (e.g. pointers) or flush (e.g. ferrets or dogs) the quarry so you can shoot or trap them. With Harris hawks it’s the opposite i.e. it’s the humans who do the flushing and the hawks who do the hunting – which begs the question, who is paying for the day’s hunting! It was almost surreal to wander through the woods with two hawks following you flitting from tree to tree waiting on their clearly inept humans flushing some unsuspecting quarry so they can swoop down on them from on high.
The third thing we learned was that don’t even think that they fly back to your glove because they like you – oh no – it’s all about food. Each hawk has it’s hunting weight and before they are used they are weighed to check that they are in a fit state to fly and hunt. If they are satiated (fed up) then they have no interest in flying – to hunt, they must be hungry. That way you can entice them back to the glove with a wee bit of chick leg. I could spend a lot of time writing about the art of falconry, the equipment they use and how many sayings in common use today (e.g. ‘fed up’ as in disinterested) can be traced back to falconry – but I won’t, go google it.
We spent the morning tramping through woods, bracken, bushes and grassland and every now and again the hawks would dive down to the ground where their keen eyesight had seen the movement of some animal – probably a mouse or vole. Their speed of reaction was amazing, but their true beauty was when they were flying at breakneck speed between the trees with the agility to avoid clattering into one – just breath taking to watch. But we caught nothing.
A nice lunch at Café Kisa (well worth a visit) included an impromptu meeting with an old friend and then a surprise meeting with our son, daughter-in-law and young grandson who just happened to be passing Auchterarder on their 400 mile journey from their home to our home – what a day.
Our falconer collected us with two new Harris hawks – an experienced female who would be the dominant bird and a youngster in training whom they had decided to call Dumpling on account of his reputation at not being the sharpest thing on two wings – his falconer used a non-PC term that rhymed with brick! Harsh, but by reputation, apparently true. The idea was that by flying them together Dumpling would learn from the experienced bird and over time become adept at hunting.
Off we set and all was going well with Dumpling following the team leader and we covered a fair bit of ground even flushing a roe deer that they ignored. A group of ramblers appeared on the other side of the river and by the time we cleared them and re-focused on what we were doing , Dumpling had gone AWOL. We searched our side of the river then eventually crossed over and as we walked into a clearing I caught a glimpse of a bird dropping into some trees about 400m away. Not wishing to be considered as astute as Dumpling I tentatively mentioned to the falconer that I thought I might have seen a bird (I do have regular appointments at Vision Express) dropping into the trees. We headed in that direction and after some skilled whistling, miraculously Dumpling rose from the trees and headed back to receive a nice chick leg. Job done – or so we thought.
We headed in another direction and suddenly the two birds dived to the ground, a success. But no, they had found a sheep carcass and set about helping themselves to some mutton. After some persuading i.e. putting their hoods on and walking away from the carcass beyond their ability to recall where it was, we hunted for about another hour. Coming towards the end of the day we headed back towards the Range Rover only to find the intrepid Dumpling had again disappeared. We went up and down, and round and round, we got the radio tracker out which had us going all over the place – no Dumpling. I suggested that perhaps he had headed back to the carcass, but the falconer considered that Dumpling would be unable to recall its’ location so not worth looking there. We ran out of time so headed back to camp for reinforcements in the shape of two other falconers and two additional radio trackers to enable triangulation of the signal. We were deposited at our car – it really was a great day with a final request that we be informed of the outcome as we wanted to know that Dumpling was safe.
Two hours later we received a text to say they had found him and he was now safely back at the hotel. Where did they find him we asked? Feeding on the sheep carcass came the response. My wife and I looked at each other and both thought – not so much of a Dumpling after all.