In our se­ries about peo­ple with a pas­sion for a species, we ask the wildlife artist ATM why he cares so much about kestrels?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Viewpoint - Matt Swaine

Why are kestrels spe­cial?

Be­cause I trained them when I was grow­ing up in Rochdale. I was 14 when I bought my first kestrel from a lad at school for £5. He hadn’t trained it so I read books about fal­conry – the best one was Jack Mavro­gordato’s A Hawk for the Bush, which was an in­spi­ra­tion for me. He had such re­spect for birds of prey and the com­pli­cated and dif­fi­cult art of train­ing them.

What did train­ing in­volve?

It was a long process of stage-by-stage in­creases in trust be­tween the bird and me. I made all my own fal­conry equip­ment from leather: hoods and jesses; leashes and lures. You need to get a bird trained to the point where it will fly 30 yards to your fist, then you know it’s ready to fly free. The first time it did was ex­tremely nerve-rack­ing.

I’d get up ev­ery morn­ing around 6am be­fore school and fly the kestrel, swing­ing a lure round my head and snatch­ing it away at the last mo­ment, as the bird would swoosh over­head, arc­ing and div­ing af­ter the food.

Why are kestrel num­bers fall­ing?

Kestrels hov­er­ing along the road­side used to be a com­mon sight, but they’re now a rar­ity. It must be due to lack of habi­tat, plus farmers us­ing more pes­ti­cides and ro­den­ti­cides. We’ve also lost mead­ows, field mar­gins and other un­kempt ar­eas. When I was grow­ing up we used to go to an area sim­ply known as ‘The Long Grass’ that was per­fect hunt­ing ter­rain for kestrels – it was full of voles. Our con­stant need for tidi­ness means we don’t al­low na­ture to grow wild. So key habi­tats and the whole web of life, all the plants and crea­tures that de­pend on each other, just aren’t there.

What do you want your art­work to achieve?

I paint en­dan­gered species, mostly in ur­ban ar­eas, to reach peo­ple who may not have a Left: ATM col­lab­o­rated with Karen Francesca to cre­ate this kestrel and meadow paint­ing in West Lon­don. con­nec­tion with na­ture. I re­cently painted a kestrel in Ac­ton, West Lon­don, on the side of emer­gency hous­ing made of ship­ping con­tain­ers stacked four-high in a big es­tate. The bird is shown hov­er­ing above a wild­flower meadow. We’ve also made planters for grow­ing veg­eta­bles and herbs, in­sect houses and sown seeds to make real wild­flower mead­ows around the tower blocks, as part of a com­mu­nity project work­ing with the lo­cal school and youth groups. This kind of thing could have a huge im­pact if it was re­peated in lots of other places.

How much time to you have to spend bird­watch­ing?

Not as much as I’d like, but I’ve just been to Arne in Dorset where I heard the won­der­ful sound of night­jars. I grew up wan­der­ing the val­leys and woods around Rochdale and I love wild places and bird­song.

See­ing a kestrel to­day is a mag­i­cal sight. I love their as­sured flight and watch­ing them hov­er­ing above a field. They re­mind me of those sunny days of my youth and the free­dom of ex­plor­ing wild places.

A kestrel is a mag­i­cal sight. I love their as­sured flight and the way they hover.

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