Ever wondered where the bond between man and the great winged birds-of-prey that occupy our skies comes from? Well, we spoke to one of the UK’s leading falconry experts Ben Long who sends his falconry furniture with ParcelHero and delved straight down into the history and day-to-day life of working with birds-of-prey.
Hi Ben, You say on your website that you got into falconry aged 16, what drew you to it?
Although my family had never been involved in the sport, we were all quite keen on shooting and fishing. I had always read a lot and began to get interested in falconry from about the age of 14.
You have read a lot about the history of falconry, can you give us a bit of a potted history of it?
Falconry began in the Middle East and can be traced back as long ago as 1000 BC. The sport was introduced into England by invaders from northern Europe as far back as the 7th century and was used by the poorer in society to hunt, while it has remained a sport for the gentry for a very long time. Falconry, since its decline after the Middle Ages has been largely kept alive by small groups of amateurs and professionals.
Now it is estimated that the UK has 28,000 “hawk keepers”, with the UK having by far the most outside of the Middle East, which is estimated to have half of the world’s falconers.
What were your first experiences with a hawk like?
As practising falconers were very few and far between, maybe only 100-200 in Britain at the time, the only option was to read books and try to train myself. It worked, and in hindsight it was the best thing as I didn’t pick up any one individual’s faults and opinions. Of course, training my first kestrel was tricky, and took longer than it should have done. I felt it was a great achievement, of course, but I have gone on to train and fly many hawks, falcons and even eagles and owls in the last 44 years.
It took you three months to train your first kestrel to fly free. What exactly is flying free?
Exactly what it says. The hawk is flown totally loose and returns to the falconer. This is for food, rather than that there is any bond with the bird of prey. There is none.
What does this training involve?
Training involves a programme of conditioning what is essentially a wild hawk to be comfortable in domestic circumstances, and teaching the bird to come back to the handler with the reward of food. Trust is built up by careful handling.
Why are some species of raptor easier than others?
All our birds of prey are domestically-bred. This doesn’t affect their temperament, and they are exactly the same as a wild-taken hawk. Some species groups are naturally slightly less “wild” than others. Falcons and buzzards, for instance. The most “nervous” are true hawks (accipiters), such as the goshawk.
In falconry do you use live prey or do you have bait, or a mixture?
It is still legal to hunt with birds of prey, and most falconers do so. The most common quarry is rabbits. However, they are also flown to various lures, particularly for display purposes. This includes imitation birds, lures suspended from kites or balloons, and even drones.
Where are the best/most exciting places you’ve flown falcons?
Probably grouse-hawking in Scotland and Wales, although flying falcons for the Saudi royal family to watch was pretty interesting. I’ve even flown a hawk in a gallery in Slovenia as part of an art installation.
What is the basic equipment (or furniture) which somebody looking to get started in falconry will need?
Quite a bit…
- Glove [for hand protection]
- Jess sets [tethering system for attachment to perch or glove]
- Swivel and leash [parts of the tethering system]
- Bells [to aid location of a free-flying hawk]
- Bewits [to attach bells]
- Bowperch [daytime perch]
- Bath [bathing and drinking water]
There are double of the amount of items here to make up the minimal amount, it really depends on your intentions as a beginner and how far you wish to take it.
What was the first furniture which you made?
I tried to make hoods at first, even before I had my first hawk. They are the most interesting and challenging things to make, and even now very few people can make good ones.
How did you make it? Did you find examples to copy in books?
I didn’t have any patterns or any idea how to make them, so I just copied them from pictures. It took many years and thousands of hours before they got to be good.
Did you have to set up your own workshop?
No, at first I just made stuff on a table in the living room!
How did you go about growing your business?
I advertised in periodicals, but there were no specialist falconry magazines. It really most grew by word of mouth.
How have you seen falconry change since you first got into it in the 1970s?
There has probably been a 200-400 times increase in the number of bird of prey owners. When I started there were perhaps 8 falconers in the county where I came from (Oxfordshire), and now there are that many in one village.
This is almost entirely due to the import of the Harris Hawk from the USA, which now constitutes probably 90% of the birds of prey flown in this country. Also domestic breeding, which has only been achieved anywhere in the world since the late 1960s, produces more birds of prey than can really be found good homes for.
Now anyone can buy a hawk, and learn everything they think they should know from a local “expert falconer”. There are plenty of falconry books, but almost nobody reads an older book on falconry, so they have no idea of what the sport is really about, which is quality flights.
Where do you ship to? Any unusual/interesting customers?
Just about everywhere. All over Europe, the USA, and the Middle East, even Japan, South Africa and Australia. We have quite a few Middle Eastern royalty as customers, and even have hoods for sale in Harrods.
What are the biggest challenges in shipping falconry furniture?
Really just the variety and sizes of what we have to send. The worst are probably fibreglass hawk baths, which are pretty big and delicate. Also some of it is quite heavy, like scales, and it all has to be packed very carefully.
Do you ever have to work on films/TV shows? If so, can you reveal which ones to us?
A few over the years. Sky Sport, The Tudor Monastery Farm and some others.
Where do you see falconry headed in the future?
I think more of the same as outlined above. It’s all a bit too easy, and most people are content with poor sport and poor flights. They are too bound up with the idea of owning a bird of prey and having it fly back to them on command.
What advice would you give to somebody looking to take it up today?
Don’t take the easy route and the lowest common denominator. Read books from the past and see what these experts felt was good sport. They don’t mention much about how to train hawks, but there is plenty about quality of flights. Go on a course (like The Falconry School) which will broaden the horizons rather than limiting them to having the same old Harris Hawk.
If you fancy experiencing the thrills of the art of falconry yourself, book an Experience Day or course at the The Falconry School in Gloucestershire.