My day with the queens of the skies

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

There’s a large black box that’s emit­ting high pierc­ing calls. It’s the eerie noise you nor­mally as­so­ciate with wildlife films, or the bit in a western when all hope is lost. But, rather in­con­gru­ously, we’re in a field near Not­ting­ham, next to a car­a­van park.

Chris Miller, a fal­coner with more than 40 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence with birds of prey, has brought a cou­ple of his birds for me to meet and learn to han­dle, be­fore we take one hunt­ing in lo­cal woods for the af­ter­noon.

Chris is a big man, but even he seems dwarfed by the feath­ered mon­ster that emerges from the box. Skye is a 12-year-old golden ea­gle, 14lb of pre­ci­sion-en­gi­neered killing ma­chine. She looks around her, spots me in my pink jacket and flaps her enor­mous wings with hor­ror. I am not the colour of the coun­try­side. Chris turns away, croon­ing into her ear as he pops a leather hood over her head, cov­er­ing her eyes. It’s the tra­di­tional way to keep hunt­ing birds quiet be­fore they’re re­leased to fly. Skye im­me­di­ately set­tles on to his gloved arm, and he kisses her on the beak. It’s like watch­ing some­one kiss a lion on the teeth.

I’m no ex­pert in bird body lan­guage, but clearly th­ese two have an ex­tra­or­di­nary bond. “She’s not im­printed, but she is bonded to me. She trusts me, and will lis­ten out for where I am.” Now that Skye is calm, Chris hands me an elk-hide gaunt­let and shows me how to safely bring the bird on to my left arm, and thread her leather an­kle straps, known as jesses, through my fin­gers so she’s se­cure. I re­alise that I missed a trick not do­ing prepara­tory weight train­ing.

With my el­bow tucked into my waist to support her weight, her head is cen­time­tres from my nose and when she opens her 6ft 6in wings, they sweep be­hind my head and ex­tend way beyond my shoul­der. I’m sur­rounded.

I’ve never felt ner­vous near birds be­fore, but hav­ing such a long, curv­ing beak at­tached to such a pow­er­ful creature in strik­ing dis­tance of my face is un­set­tling. Chris laughs. “It’s not her beak you need to watch out for, it’s her talons. She’s a rap­tor – they hunt and kill with their feet.”

Fe­male ea­gles as big as Skye are ca­pa­ble of tak­ing down prey species that are up to 10 times their body weight. Doesn’t that mean she’s a risk to peo­ple? “Not un­less you’re cov­ered in fur and run­ning around on all fours!” Chris re­as­sures me. Birds of prey aren’t “trained” in the usual sense, it’s more that we ex­ploit their nat­u­ral instincts. “The only thing you can train a bird of prey to do is to come to your fist for food. You can’t teach it to hunt – that’s pure in­stinct. They won’t ever go for quarry that isn’t a nat­u­ral food source.”

It’s il­le­gal to take birds of prey from the wild, so all birds used for fal­conry in the UK have been cap­tive-reared. Th­ese are not quirky pets, though, and as I learn about feed­ing regimes, the space re­quired for pens, the need to se­cure per­mis­sion to fly your birds over suit­able land for ex­er­cise, it’s clear that fal­conry is not a hobby, it’s a life­style choice.

Sud­denly Chris calls for me to put my el­bow down. With­out re­al­is­ing, my arm has started to flag, my hand has dropped and Skye is sidestep­ping up the gaunt­let to­wards my el­bow, ma­noeu­vring to the high point of her “perch”.

Her talons can ex­ert a pres­sure of more than 400psi. And, like other birds of prey, ea­gles’ leg bones and ten­dons have an in­built ratchet, so once they lock their grip, it can be main­tained, or tight­ened, with lit­tle ef­fort. It means that if her talons go into my arm, she can keep them in there in­def­i­nitely.

Be­fore she walks off the leather and on to (or, more specif­i­cally, into) my flesh, Chris is cor­rect­ing my po­si­tion to the safe, hor­i­zon­tal grip that set­tles her.

It’s a mag­i­cal, if slightly hair-rais­ing in­tro­duc­tion to hand­son fal­conry. Hunt­ing with the ea­gles is nor­mally on ex­tended trips to much big­ger coun­try, par­tic­u­larly for hares and foxes dur­ing the win­ter in Scot­land. With an aching arm and a rac­ing heart, I swap Skye for the bird we’re go­ing to hunt with to­day.

Ban­shee, a Har­ris hawk, has beau­ti­ful, bur­nished conker­coloured wings, and bright, in­tel­li­gent eyes. She’s also not a fan of my coat, but un­der Chris’s watchful eye we get ac­quainted safely. Th­ese hawks’ com­pact, rounded wings give them great agility in flight, mak­ing them per­fectly de­signed to hunt in wood­land for smaller quarry like rab­bits and pheas­ants.

Ban­shee was bred and reared by Chris, and as we walk to­wards the beech wood she keeps pace with him, swoop­ing from the rooftop of a barn to a tele­graph pole, to the branch of a tree ahead. She has a small bell at­tached to her jesses, so we can keep track of where she is. At one point she lags be­hind and Chris whis­tles and calls her name. She launches her­self to­wards us, swoop­ing straight to his glove, tak­ing the of­fered piece of raw chicken, then soar­ing up again to scout ahead.

Ban­shee is at her ideal fly­ing weight, close to what she would main­tain if she were in the wild – lean and hun­gry enough to hunt. There are only a few ounces be­tween a bird’s fly­ing weight and them be­ing ei­ther un­der- or over­weight – it’s ex­pe­ri­ence and train­ing that gives a good fal­coner the skill to judge it.

As we walk into the wood, the hawk’s bell tin­kles ahead of us. “Ah, she’s on to some­thing,” Chris whis­pers, and we hear the rat­tle of pheas­ant wings. Chris sets off through the un­der­growth – it’s es­sen­tial we keep up with Ban­shee

Chris Miller of­fers hunt­ing days and Birds of Prey ex­pe­ri­ence days, as well as multi-day hunt­ing trips to Scot­land and on the con­ti­nent. A half-day hunt­ing costs from £60, a walk with hawks costs £75 for five peo­ple. Chris is also an ap­proved train­ing provider for the in­dus­try-recog­nised Lantra Fal­conry Award. chris­miller­fal­conry.co.uk so that if she catches the pheas­ant we can get to it quickly, dis­patch it if nec­es­sary, then swap her quarry for a food re­ward.

But this time the pheas­ant gains enough height to es­cape the hawk’s talons. Har­ris hawks catch their prey low to the ground so once the pheas­ant is up in the air, it’s safe.

Chris is philo­soph­i­cal. “Hunt­ing with hawks is qual­ity not quan­tity. If you want to kill lots of pheas­ants, go to a shoot. If the ap­peal is work­ing the birds, main­tain­ing the her­itage and sport of fal­conry, and get­ting some­thing for the pot, then you can’t beat a day hawk­ing.”

We have a cou­ple more nearmisses with pheas­ants, and I get to prac­tise my fal­coner’s skills, let­ting Ban­shee fly off my glove (known as “cast­ing off”, or “slip­ping”), and beck­on­ing her back from the canopy of trees with a meaty morsel.

As the af­ter­noon light fades, we call her back for the last time. Ban­shee hap­pily lets me se­cure her jesses around my fin­gers in ex­change for a de­li­cious raw chicken wing.

I’m not dis­ap­pointed that we didn’t get a pheas­ant. This is an ex­er­cise in sus­tain­able, lo­cal food gath­er­ing, not gra­tu­itous blood­lust. If the quarry doesn’t end up in the cook­ing pot, it goes to the birds. Noth­ing gets wasted. It’s clear that Chris op­er­ates in the best tra­di­tion of coun­try­side stew­ard­ship.

In 2010, fal­conry was recog­nised by UNESCO as cul­tural her­itage that must be pro­tected. The skills of this an­cient and chal­leng­ing art have been taught for at least 200 gen­er­a­tions, and it’s a sport that has shaped the English lan­guage (putting a feather in your cap, be­ing fed up, cry­ing havoc and be­ing hood­winked are all fal­conry ex­pres­sions) and land­scape and even in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. Hawk­ing may not be the eas­i­est thing I’ve tried, but it’s one of the most en­thralling.

Bri­tain’s got talons: fal­coner Chris Miller

in­tro­duces MaryAnn to Skye, above; hunt­ing for pheas­ants with Ban­shee, be­low

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