Thursday 22 August 2019

'Tamed and trained, they remain wild and punkish at heart': Why I fell in love with falconry

As the endangered pastime is put on the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, Hilary A White explains why it's a worthy addition

Hilary A White named his sparrowhawk Sarah Greene after the actress. Photo: KEIYA NAKAJIMA
Hilary A White named his sparrowhawk Sarah Greene after the actress. Photo: KEIYA NAKAJIMA

Hilary A White

Hawks are not known for being reasonable when holidays must be taken. It's not like you can just ring an old school friend and leave them with a glove and some raw meat, telling them you'll be back Sunday night and to help themselves to whatever they find in the fridge.

There's a reason we falconers are light on the ground and it's probably because only a thoroughbred takes more management than a hunting hawk. Either you don't take a holiday during the hawking season (September to February), or if you do need to get away, you leave your bird with another licensed falconer. You don't have to spend all of every day with the bird, but you do sort of organise the day around them.

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My sparrowhawk recently returned to the wild where she initially came from. Her name was Sarah Greene (when she arrived, there was a green theme happening and the Cork actress had just joined the cast of Penny Dreadful. I revealed this to the real Ms Greene while interviewing her and she proceeded to gush over photos of her namesake).

She was raised by hand as a chick in a process called 'imprinting' and spent her evenings on a perch in our kitchen. By day, she was out on a perch with a bath until the afternoon would come around and we would go flying.

Raptors and humans have dwelled together in domestic settings since pre-history, the earliest known evidence being engraved depictions of this partnership found in Central Asia from 5,000 years ago. Putting food on the table was the reason back then, but as falconry caught on through the centuries and steadily spread West, it came to signify prestige, skill and acumen. If you were a good falconer, you were probably a good human being because to do it right takes patience, resolve, sensitivity, craftsmanship and intuition.

In fact, it wasn't long ago that keeping a hawk was commonplace. Dublin's Phoenix Park, for example, was originally established in the mid-1600s as somewhere for Dubliners to fly their hawks and run their hounds.

Hilary says falconry is like watching a David Attenborough TV show
Hilary says falconry is like watching a David Attenborough TV show

In the 21st century, falconers come from every background and walk of life, all drawn by the sheer kinetic magnificence of falcons and hawks. If you're susceptible to the bug, you get bitten hard, which you need if you're going to get through the long road of learning required before you can get a falconry licence and a bird. It's not about having a cool pet to show off.

Friends and colleagues have come to accept what I do with a level of bemusement, and I don't entirely blame them. I battle through traffic on winter afternoons to fly a trained bird outside the city. You don't need money to be a falconer, but you do need time and headspace. Surely there are better uses for both.

Funnily enough, I'm starting to wonder if there are. In this era of mindfulness and increased digital stress, falconry is an excellent way to shut out the noise of modern life and focus yourself entirely on another life form so it can flourish. Maintaining a bounteous vegetable patch probably provides a similar fix. And as society becomes more urbanised and obsessed with the latest and the shiniest, there is something very enriching about not only having a passport to nature on an intimate level, but also a connection to times past.

Falconers today might use GPS technology to find lost hawks, but the ancient fundamentals remain unchanged for me or any falconer in the 90 countries around the world where falconry is practised: a unique relationship with a bird of prey for the purpose of hunting. Yes, that's right - hunting. As Helen Macdonald put it so neatly in her Obama-approved international bestseller H Is For Hawk, wild hawks hunt and so does mine. It is their driving force, the one thing evolution has honed them to excel at, and it is wrong to deny them it. The difference, however, with falconry is that you can have an excellent day hawking and not catch a thing.

Falconers have been likened to frustrated birdwatchers. All we really care about is the drama of the chase and getting a front-row seat in the same thrilling natural equation you tune into David Attenborough for.

There is much more to it as well, which is why today, Ireland officially adds the art to our National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, meaning that falconry is now recognised alongside the likes of hurling, trad music and Limerick lace as being a keystone of our national identity.

I was part of a small team that argued the case for it to be included on this prestigious list, our motivations partly rooted in a fear that falconry, like many other green pursuits, is struggling to compete with screen culture where young recruits are concerned.

Intangible Cultural Heritage is a very fine thing indeed. Unesco defines it as practices or skills transmitted from generation to generation by communities in response to their environment, their interaction with nature, and their history.

Nothing fits the description better than falconry. You learn it from a mentor or a parent, it is tied up in the environment in which you live, and it involves a constant conversation with an ancient history.

For me, it always felt like the most natural inclination. I saw the picture in a bird book in my school library as a child of 10 and that was that. I didn't really know what it was, but I had to have it. It seemed the most immaculate expression of my love for birds of prey and the natural world that I could imagine. It would be another two years before my mother would knock on the door of a local falconer one school night and beg him to teach her hawk-mad son to be a falconer. It was passed on to me, and one day it'll be my turn to do the same.

So what it is about the relationship that is so special? It comes down to the fact that falcons and hawks are not domesticated like dogs or horses. While tamed and trained, they remain wild and punkish at heart, and it is this that I love to be around. Affection exists but, alas, it is one way. I can have a hawk for years and it can desert me any day while out flying. Once she leaves the glove, I have little control ultimately beyond the training I've given her.

What you do have, though, is trust and that is what the whole thing stands or falls on. Good falconers maintain this trust. Bad ones squander it. Nature is beautiful, but it is also unforgiving. Birds of prey in the wild run a 60pc chance of perishing in their first winter, starvation the major cause. Sometimes my hawk is successful and sometimes she isn't. Either way, she gets fed, whether from what she's caught or else from the store of frozen hawk food (chicks, quail, mice) at home. The only times we share is if she brings down a woodpigeon. In that case, the breasts go to my freezer and the rest is for her. As any fisherman or backyard horticulturalist will agree, food you have sourced yourself is unbeatable, and pan-fried woodpigeon supplied by a hawk preening near the kitchen table tastes out of this world. In truth, mind you, it's just one of many ways flying hawks has brought nourishment to my life.

Irish Independent

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