Activity Sports - Falconry

Taking Flight

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Karin Goodwin is given an introduction to the noble sport of falconry

The very word falconry conjures up images of a more ancient time. Archaeologists have found evidence that it dates back to first century BC; the pastime has strong roots in the Middle East and feudal Japan, and was practiced by the noblemen and women of medieval Europe.

It might have been traditionally considered an art form, but the purpose of falconry is much more brutal. Simply put, it involves the use of trained birds to hunt and kill prey for man. The birds may be acting on instinct, but a sport for vegans it ain’t.

At the British School of Falconry set in the grounds of the Gleneagles hotel, I’m here for a gentle introduction lesson rather than the half day hunt, which is also on offer.

My instructor, Duncan, starts off by showing me the various birds kept by the school - the impressive eagles, both tawny and golden varieties, which boast wingspans of up to seven feet, the falcons, smaller and more manageable, though as Duncan explains, not easy for the novice to handle, and the sociable Harris hawks.

It is these friendly birds, which originate in South America, that the school uses for lessons, not least because, as pack hunters, several can be taken out at once for a group booking.

Duncan leaves me to choose a falconer’s glove and returns with my bird for the afternoon, one-year-old Margo. Margo is a perfect flying weight, being neither so hungry that she will be too weak to soar or too well-fed meaning she has little interest in edible rewards.

Under Duncan’s guidance I hold my arm up and Margo steps onto her new perch. She regards me with beady eyes, squawking with excitement about her impending outing. It’s rather unnerving but thrilling to hold her at such close range.

I make my way carefully across the lawn, hand twisted so my thumb is on top, making it easy for Margo to balance, her reins tucked gently but firmly under my thumb and middle finger in case she decides to make a quick get-away.

We stop a few metres on and Duncan shows me how to extend my arm and ‘throw’ Margo away from me. After she has landed on a nearby perch, he places a little piece of chicken on my glove and she comes soaring in, wings spread, before landing softly on my arm.

Once I’m accustomed to this, it’s off for a stroll. Margo soars into the trees while I make sure she sticks fairly close by tempting her down for more meaty snacks at regular intervals. Later we mock up a chase with a piece of rabbit-shaped fur filled with meat pieces. She looks majestic as she soars and dives after it, pouncing and drawing in her wings to protect her spoils.

Along the way, Duncan explains the history of the sport and the different birds that would have been used according to social standing - a golden eagle for the King, a Peregrine was fitting for a Prince, while priests flew the lowlier sparrow hawks. Commoners were not permitted to take part.

All too soon it’s time to say goodbye to Margo who, now fed, is more serene and lets me stroke the soft downy feathers on her chest.

It’s low octane and not for thrill seekers. But it makes for an enjoyable afternoon and is a great way to get close to one of the most magnificent creatures on the planet.

Falconry lessons and hunting packages are available from £59 at the British School of Falconry, Gleneagles Hotel, Perthshire (www.gleneagles.com, 01764 662 231).

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