Worcs & Warks

Spring in Worcestershire and Warwickshire has been has been a busy time while I criss-crossed the country to supervise building work at my house in Kent and have dental treatment in London. Not to mention taking care of Grahame’s Mum in Wiltshire. However, it is country living in the West Midlands that is really the subject of this post and, despite being a lifelong “townie”  with a natural aversion to cow pats and nettles, I  seem to be getting on reasonably well.

My falconry studies slowed down last year: I could blame my intermittent joint pain or the decision not to own a bird of prey of my own but the truth probably has more to do with my natural talentlessness in acquiring new practical skills and a more understandable disinclination to return to the text books. Only my tutor’s enthusiasm and the inspiration drawn from proximity to such magnificent living creatures kept me at it and at last I have finally submitted my workbook for the LANTRA award (Land Based Training – an accreditation system for various practical countryside skills).

The qualification is not an actual requirement to own a bird of prey in the UK but, since falconry is a pastime that requires so much patience and skill, it is undoubtedly advisable. For more than thirty years it has been illegal to take birds of prey from the wild and all of those currently used for the sport in the UK are captive bred and bear identification rings.  Compared to top pedigree dogs and cats, they are not particularly expensive to own but the painstaking process involved in training them and maintaining their condition makes them very valuable indeed. Injuries can be difficult to treat and a lot of avian illnesses have only one probable outcome. Even the most experienced falconers can sometimes lose birds this way and the best ones make this clear in their textbooks; as opposed to the glossy “coffee table” books which make it all look so glamourous.

I must admit to having become fascinated by the depictions of falconry in art though; it was once such a favoured pastime of nobility that it sometimes looks as if it came quite naturally to the nobleman (or woman) to control bird, steed and dog while all the while exuding the epitome of style. No wonder falconers occupied such a high status in the ancient and medieval courts: their principal achievement was in making their patrons look good. Rarer birds such as goshawks and gir falcons cost (literally) a King’ ransom but behind the scenes a great quantity of smaller, commoner birds must have perished.

Two phenomenon have revolutionised the sport in the UK in recent times. One is the introduction of affordable telemetry which enables a tracker to be fitted before a bird is released. This won’t necessarily induce it to come back but at least gives a good indication of where to start looking for it. The other is the introduction of the non-native species, the Harris Hawk. A Harris is a medium sized, brown winged relative of the buzzard that is native to South-Central America and is the only bird of prey to hunt in packs (flocks?, families? Groups?). This natural behaviour makes it much more agreeable to working with humans and their dogs and, in spite of the older falconers’ lament that it has taken so much of the skill out of the sport, many of us find that we prefer a bird without too much “attitude”.

As I gain in confidence I am allowed to pay for my lessons by making myself useful in a variety of ways. Preparing the food for a show doesn’t just mean supplying homemade mushroom pate for the sandwiches, it means cutting up day-old chicks into bite-sized titbits, sorting out the dead rats and even at times mucking out the ferret cage. There is no room for squeamishness here and I am sometimes grateful for the fact that I grew up on Richmond Hill. I may not have joined the other Surrey girls in aspiring to join the pony club but at least I understood that juniors had to do a great deal of “mucking out”.

My suede jacket is now so impregnated with blood, yolk and other bio-matter that it needs to be hung in the outhouse, if I do not check my pockets regularly I am at risk of finding them full of maggots and I carry veterinary disinfectant and haemorrhoid cream for talon wounds (on the hands). I can recognise a rabbit hole, tell the difference between a crow and a pigeon in flight and even feel which way a breeze is blowing. Perhaps I will adapt to country living after all.

Categories: Britain, West of England

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