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Falconry is the ancient art of hunting wild prey in its natural environment using a trained bird of prey. It’s thought that the practise of hunting with birds began in Mesopotamia over 4,000 years ago and is still used by gamekeepers and enthusiasts today. Modern falconers tend to fly the Harris Hawk or the Red-tailed Hawk and while a falconer works with a falcon, an austringer flies hawks and eagles. Hunting with a trained bird is also referred to as ‘gamehawking’ or ‘hawking’ and traditionally the female birds were called ‘hawks’ or ‘falcons’, while male birds of either species were referred to as ‘tiercels’ or tercels’.
Whether the Mesopotamians actually practised what we now know as falconry, is a matter of some conjecture, but the falcon was the symbol of the Ancient Mongols and the sport was almost certainly introduced to Europe by the Huns and Alans around 1600 years ago. Frederick II of Hohenstaufen is believed to be the father of modern falconry and claimed to have learned the tricks of the trade from the Arabs during many wars he fought in the area. He created the first Latin handbook on the subject and also issued a treatise ‘De arte venandi cum avibus’ which is now regarded as one of the first comprehensive books on falconry. Falconry was a very popular sport with Medieval nobles in Europe and was regarded as a status symbol as it was only practised by the wealthy due to the time, money and space needed. In England falconry is likely to have reached the height of its popularity in the 17th Century and declined due to the emergence of firearms and their increased use in the hunting field. In the UK the sport underwent a renaissance in the late 19th – early 20th Century and this led to the sport being introduced to the US.
There are a few types of raptor that can be used for falconry and falconers generally classify them as follows:
The Harris Hawk is the best raptor for hunting smaller mammals such as rabbit or hare and is also skilled at catching birds. They are usually captive-bred and prized for their temperament and ability. The Harris is the only bird of prey known to be highly social and to hunt in packs. The Red-tailed Hawk is often said to be a good bird for beginners and is widely used in North America. It’s useful for hunting rabbits, squirrels and hares, as well as ducks, pheasants and geese. The Common Buzzard is also a popular hunting bird, although this species requires more perseverance during training, particularly with rabbits. The Goshawk is renowned for its ability to despatch prey quickly and with a good deal of violence. This bird and the other Accipiters have been used for many hundreds of years for hunting and can catch a wide variety of birds and mammals. Booted eagles such as the Golden are used to take larger prey such as foxes and are even rumoured to have been used by Kazakh hunters to take wolves. Eagles are not widely used in falconry due to the space required and the danger of flying such large birds in or near densely populated areas. They are also more adept at hunting ground-based prey so are therefore not as versatile as some of the smaller birds. Owls are also used occasionally – particularly the Eurasian Eagle Owl and the Great Horned Owl, however the owl requires a completely different training regime as they are hearing rather than sight-oriented hunters. Ospreys and Sea Eagles have also been used to hunt fish, but as the species are protected in some countries their use in falconry has been limited.
Most modern falconers work with captive-bred birds in order to preserve dwindling wild populations which suffer due to declining habitat and persecution. The first birds of prey to breed in captivity were a pair of peregrine falcons belonging to Renz Waller in Germany. In the UK, Phillip Glasier of The Falconry Centre in Newent was successful in breeding young from over 20 species of captive birds of prey. This development spurred an organised approach to breeding in order to supplement declining wild populations, which was most zealous in the US. By the 1980s falconers were getting almost all of their young birds from dedicated breeders and this alleviated some pressure on the wild populations. In other parts of the world laws regulating the conservation, capture and import and export of wild raptors vary greatly, although the infiltration of captive-bred birds into some markets will undoubtedly mean wild birds are not caught as often.
In the UK it is permitted to carry out hunting with birds without a special licence, although all birds must be captive-bred. The sport was given legal status in 1981 by the Wildlife and Countryside Act and this meant the practice could carry on unhindered after calls to have it outlawed, providing all birds were ringed and registered with the Government. Although the taking of wild birds is permitted in the UK under special licence, all falconers are required to hunt only with birds that have been captive bred. Anyone can own a captive-bred raptor in the UK as long as it’s registered properly, although falconers are at pains to point out that simply owning a bird does not make you a falconer. To be considered a true falconer you must engage in the hunting of live prey with a bird. A raptor kept as a pet is not considered a falconer’s bird.
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