Since childhood I have been fascinated by falconeering. In particular, I remember being drawn in by early representations of falconeering in an art book at home, and whiling away the hours thinking about adventures that could be had with a flying companion. The idea of forging a bond with a bird of prey, a wild animal, still intrigues me.
Evidence suggests that the art of Falconeering may have begun in Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. The man responsible for bringing the practice to Europe was the Roman Emperor, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250). He reportedly would have come in contact with Arabic falconeering through his connections with Tunisia’s Hafsid rulers. And upon obtaining a copy of an 8th century treatise on falconeering, he had it translated into Latin, and this resulted in the first manual for falconeering in Europe.
Historically, falconeering was not only a practical means of hunting prey too quick to capture by other means, but a popular sport. The ownership of certain kinds of birds was an important status symbol among the nobles of medieval Europe. Strict rules dictated what kind of bird you could own according to your station in life.
Birds of prey had such importance that they occupied a special place at the table during nightly feasts. With the rise of firearms in the 18th and 19th centuries, falconeering gradually faded from wide use. Only recently has the public become interested again in the practice, due in large part to the success of the Harry Potter novels.
Evidence suggests that the art of Falconeering may have begun in Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. The man responsible for bringing the practice to Europe was the Roman Emperor, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen
Although it’s an ancient practice, falconeering has changed little over time. The key equipment required is virtually identical to what would have been familiar back in the 8th century; the hood that keeps the birds calm, the glove and the bell leather jesses. Only a modern radio transmitter has been added to the kit of tools for the modern falconer to help chase down errant birds.
Modern falconeering is mostly on view to the public in sideshows for tourists at old castles. This usually involves bad actors in cheap Halloween store costumes, trying to get you into the spirit of medieval life; not interesting in the least.
So I began a search for a place where an amateur could truly participate in the sport. I was thrilled to come across The Hawking Centre in Doddington Place Gardens, Kent.
The gardens alone at Doddington Place are wonderful. If you come with your family and not everybody is into falconeering, there is plenty to keep you occupied in the garden. The immense clipped yew hedges are worth a look. Left to grow unchecked during World War II, then owner John Oldfield decided he liked them better in their over-grown state, and now they are famous for their naturalist expression. They remind me of giant ground-dwelling clouds.
For this trip we took the train from Central London, leaving from Victoria station. We brought our bikes along for the four-mile ride from Teynham station to Doddington Place Gardens.
Arriving on time, we joined in with the group; all from different walks of life but with our falconeering interest in common. It was a gorgeous sunny Spring morning when proprietor and head falconer Leigh Holmes arrived to give us a quick run down on what he had planned for our day. Leigh introduced us to his team; Laura, Katie, young apprentice Lewes and Jo his wife, who runs the wonderful tearoom.
Leigh started working with birds as a teenager and has never looked back. His dream to bring falconeering to a wider public really shows in his enthusiasm for the sport. His young son Edward joined in on the activities periodically, in between romps in the garden. He is already an accomplished falconer, following in dad’s footsteps.
First Laura brought out Maggie the vulture and divided us into two groups. We took turns wearing the baited glove to attract Maggie’s attention. Whoever was wearing the glove in the opposite group, Maggie flew to. Back and forth from group to group, landing on whoever had the glove with some food. It was a bit like tennis; back and forth, back and forth. We each had a turn.
Vultures are not really trained for falconry, but seeing a full-grown vulture up close was a real treat. It was interesting to learn that vulture’s feet are rather weak, but they have very strong necks, the opposite of a bird of prey. Since they live off animals that are already dead they don’t need to hunt so they have evolved different strengths to suite.
Then a quick tour through where the birds are housed. The care and maintenance of the birds is a lot of work, the most important aspect of which is their weight control. The birds need to be the right weight in order to want to fly and look for food. If a bird is too skinny it will not be able to fly. If it weighs too much it will not be interested in flying. So in order to get the right balance, each bird is weighed regularly to decide which ones are ready to fly each day. Also, each variety of bird has a different optimal weight. The constant care required to keep these birds healthy and performing well is what makes for such a close bond between bird and owner. It takes a special kind of personality to commit to caring for these beautiful, valuable and high-maintenance creatures.
In talking to the handlers, they all developed a passion for their birds quite young. And all said the same thing about their first encounter with falconry, they knew in an instant that they wanted to work with birds of prey. It was love at first sight.
Next Laura took us on a walk around the wonderful Doddington gardens with one of the falcons. Again, we walked in two groups with the falcon flying between the groups, each time searching out the one wearing the baited glove.
I have to admit that I found the experience quite enthralling. The first time the falcon flew towards me and landed on my hand I had a split second thought, “oh boy, what have I gotten myself into now?” but then I remembered that Leigh said not show fear because they can sense it and will challenge you. So I relaxed and went with it … bird safely in hand.
Arriving back at the tearoom Jo and her helpers had prepared a lovely lunch for us with sandwiches, tea and cakes. All homemade and delicious.
After a good break we gathered in the gardens and Laura took us on a walk around the whole estate with one of the falcons named Jojo. As we walked through grazing sheep and lambs, and past the occasional horse, the falcon would fly ahead and perch in a tree. Then on seeing one of us with the baited gloved, she would swoop down onto the glove to feed. This falcon had quite a mischievous personality. She would often swoop down, flying so low as to just clip one of us with her wings on her way to the glove. Testing us all, I presume, to see whom the weak ones were.
Next we made our way back for the big finale, Margo the eagle. We headed out to the large meadow and Margo took off. First we thought she might head off for a long high glide on the stiff breeze. But instead she flew to the middle of the field, stood there with wings spread, just letting the wind blow through her feathers.
She is only seven month old and when she lands on your hand you can see that she is a bit like a puppy, not very certain of her skills yet and rather playful. She weighs 11 pounds so you need to summon all your strength to hold her until she takes off again to take food from another of your fellow participants across the field.
That was really the highlight of the day, and the perfect ending to a wonderful excursion to Doddington Place Gardens.
Back on our bikes, we rode to Teynham station, for the short trip back to London.
The Hawking Center is in operation from the 30th of March through the 30th of September. But check the website for the latest information and for directions to Doddington Gardens; www.thehawkingcentre.co.uk
For a more in depth experience you may be interested in the five day course.