Cadging a day with a lady falconer
Matt Limb OBE looks at the never dwindling interest in falconry, the rise of the lady falconer and how phrases from this ancient sport have become part of everyday English.
Hunting with a hawk has a long and distinguished history going back some 3,000 years and is still practised as an art form, not only in this country but also across Europe and in many parts of the world. The world of falconry has always been held in the highest of respect and today falcon experience days and falconry demonstrations are as popular as ever.
That classic image of a tweed-suited and well-booted country gent with a hawk on his wrist, riding a thoroughbred horse, was once described to me as sitting alongside horse racing as the true sport of kings. With this image in your mind, it is not hard to understand why many see falconry as a predominantly male pursuit, but in recent years I have seen steady and constant growth as more lady falconers are attracted to the sport. So imagine my delight when I was invited to spend a day with Amy Coldron, a Lincoln born and bred lady falconer, who now flies a variety of birds, from her small native kestrel to a massive bald eagle.
As we drove over to the edge of the Wolds, with a selection of her birds secured in transport boxes, Amy explained her lifelong passion and love for animals along with the countryside. This started as a young girl, being with her parents who were avid showjumpers – by the time she was a teenager, Amy was a competent horse rider. At home, there was always a small menagerie of animals, from rabbits and guinea pigs to the horses and dogs, but Amy admits she had a particular soft spot for the dogs, which I still see in her today with her German Wirehaired Pointers.
Like so many of us, Amy was not sure what she wanted to do as she left school, other than work in a rural environment with animals, so a university course and degree in animal management and welfare offered her a broad remit. As she explained: “My thinking at the time was this degree course would be a career path to a wide range of rural animal-based careers.”
Following university, Amy returned to Lincolnshire and worked for the county police force with dangerous dogs, or to be more exact, dogs that had been retained under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Chatting with Amy she obviously enjoyed this work, which varied from being the kennel maid to helping with behavioural training and the dog’s final assessment, always in the hope of being able to return a dog to its owners. Following this, her career grew further as she spent time at a dog rescue centre, where her skills in behavioural training again came to the fore.
But it was her older brother returning to Lincolnshire, after helping at a bird of prey centre, that started Amy on her route to becoming a lady falconer. She soon acquired her first bird, a peregrine falcon and with time more birds followed and are now part of Amy’s everyday life. Today, Amy can be found organising and running falcon experience days for members of the public, plus the demonstrations she undertakes. In addition, she is actively involved with pest control using her birds; this work can take her well beyond the county. In recent months pest control tasks have seen her in Lancashire tackling a problem with seagulls at a meat pie factory. Similar and effective use of her birds were found at a school in Derbyshire where seagulls had been mobbing and swooping on children in the playground. As well as seagulls, pigeons are a constant problem, often in urban areas such as large storage warehouses and even the docks on the north Lincolnshire coast.
As we arrived in our quiet and remote spot, with the truck parked on a recently harvested stubble field, Amy admitted that hunting with birds of prey is possibly the most thrilling thing to watch.
“To see a falcon in flight hunting has to be respected, it is the original art form of falconry, plus the advantage that the quarry will help feed the birds, who need a ready supply of quality fresh meat.”
As we stood looking across the massive stubble field, I asked what the current regulations are in the ownership of a bird of prey and was a little taken aback by the answer. Today, recreational falconers do not need a licence to participate, unlike a bird of prey centre which comes under zoo regulations, with restrictions on aviary sizes and design, plus record-keeping for the bird’s welfare. Amy admitted that while she would welcome anyone and has helped people in the past gain a foothold as a falconer, she would welcome some form of falconry regulation, to protect both the birds and the sport. That said, all birds of prey require a certificate and must be either microchipped or have a closed ring on their leg, with the details recorded and registered. Finally, it is worth noting that in the British Isles it is illegal to take a bird from the wild for falconry, so while Amy has several native species, they have all been bred in captivity.
Then came the moment I had been waiting for: Amy put on her leather glove, and opened the transit box to a gentle squawk as Blair hopped onto her wrist. It was an instant in which you felt you should stay quiet out of respect for the sheer beauty of Blair; she certainly demanded your attention and respect as she turned her head and looked you in the eye. Blair is a five-year-old, near white, gyrfalcon, a species that originates in Greenland. As we walked a short distance across the stubble it was easy to see why Blair is so popular on demonstrations and experience days.
As we admired the view and while I remained mesmerised by Blair, Amy told me how so many everyday phrases have their origins in falconry. ‘Wrapped around your little finger’, or ‘under the thumb’, come from the falconer, meaning the bird is tight and secure on their fist, held in place by the tether. Equally today we use the phrase ‘at the end of my tether’ to say we are losing control or not able to deal with a problem – this is again from falconry, meaning the bird is out of control on the end of its tether. Another common phrase that has its origins in falconry is ‘fed up’, meaning the bird can’t be bothered anymore because it’s had enough to eat, and is no longer willing to hunt. Finally, how often do you use or hear the phrase to ‘cadge a lift’ or to ‘cadge something for free’? In times past the falconer would have a follower, often a young boy, who would carry his spare birds in a box – the box was known as the cadge box, hence the birds cadged a free lift.
With Blair safely back in her box, I was introduced to Rupert, a peregrine falcon, a native British bird that is recognised as the fastest in flight during a diving swoop as it comes down to catch its prey. Rupert is a little special to Amy, as he was her first bird. Rupert may not have the size of Blair, but he certainly has the presence. Again I found myself almost mesmerised as he sat on Amy’s wrist looking at me. As we spoke about the speed at which a peregrine can fly, Amy told me about falcon racing, which is relatively new in this country. Birds are raced over a 400m straight line, a sprint known as a flat race, or in a pursuit chasing a robotic prey in a hunt race. It is fast growing and well supported by falconers across the country, plus the public are now becoming interested as spectators. In recent years Amy has taken birds and participated in the races and despite these early days one of her birds, a gyr-saker, came second on a flat line race.
With such a wide and diverse background, I asked Amy where she sees herself in a few years. There was no hesitation in the answer: “I could never do anything else now.”
But looking to her future Amy does aspire to move into species conservation, especially for vultures, which she confessed hold a particular attraction. But that said, she can still see herself taking on the true art form of falconry and having a day’s hunting with them, which as she commented must be the most natural thing in nature.
As late afternoon beckoned it was time for me to meet the last of the birds; this was a moment I had especially looked forward to as Peanut, a four-year-old kestrel, jumped onto her glove. As I looked at Peanut, I was taken back to my schooldays and the English lessons in which we studied A Kestrel for a Knave, the book written by Barry Hines which was the basis for the film Kes. Peanut may be a fraction of the size of the gyrfalcon and the peregrine, but a quick look into his eyes and you could see his character, that of a naughty little schoolboy.
Watching Peanut and noting his size against Blair and Rupert, I think I understood better the quotation from the Book of Saint Albans. The book, printed in 1486, is a compilation of matters relating to the interests of a gentleman at the time. The book pairs appropriate birds with social ranks: an Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King, a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady, a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, a Musket for a Holy Water Clerk and a Kestrel for a Knave – here a knave is a servant or a man of humble birth or position; not the rogue or scoundrel so often associated with the modern word.
Looking the part, Peanut stretched his wings and scanned the length of the stubble field for any prey. Amy explained that he was bred from a young chick; in falconry terms he was an imprint, referring to a falconry bird reared from hatching by humans. Peanut is the same species of kestrel we so often see hunting along the roadside, but he has a somewhat different life expectancy.
A kestrel born and bred in captivity can expect to live for up to 20 years. Sadly the bird hatched and raised in the wild will be lucky to reach his third birthday. One of the biggest reasons being road traffic accidents, especially involving large vehicles, whose slipstream can’t be handled by such a small bird. It is a point that Amy continually pushes at her experience days; the reason kestrels are such a common sight hunting on the side of the road is the abundance of mice and rats – the main reason for the rats and mice is food thrown from a car window. The answer is simple: do not throw food out of a car and you will help kestrels live longer in the wild.
With the rumble of the harvest still busy in neighbouring fields it was time to make a move. Like so many I have been fascinated by birds of prey for many years. For such small creatures they have a character and presence many times their size; they are certainly captivating when you get up close and it is not hard to see why hunting with falcons is held in such high esteem. As tempted as I could have been to slip Peanut into my pocket, where there would have been plenty of room for him to fit comfortably, I reluctantly said goodbye to him and Amy.
I am delighted to see more ladies, like Amy, literally picking up the gauntlet as falconers, which can only help our native birds of prey and preserve them for future generations. We must remember, if we want to see birds of prey in the future then it is the actions and hard work of the responsible modern falconer that will achieve this, as they ensure future generations enjoy the experience of a falcon or hawk doing what comes naturally to them, hunting.