A Kestrel for a Knave and hunting with eagles

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
March 2024

Matt Limb OBE follows a falconer hunting with a golden eagle, an experience that evokes some strong childhood memories.

I can clearly remember reading A Kestrel for a Knave, the book written by the late Barry Hines, during my later days at school. Then having to write about the heartwarming relationship between the young boy Billy and his kestrel, which he called Kes, as he learnt the art of falconry growing up in 1960s South Yorkshire.

I can equally remember that reading the book had a lasting impact on me. In fact, the follow-up film, Kes, would list in my top ten films of all time. But never did I expect, so many decades later, to meet and enjoy the company of a real-life Billy.

A few weeks ago, I was asked if I would like to spend a day with some falconers who were flying and hunting with golden eagles. It took me less than a moment to ask where I needed to be and when.

The invite came from Billy Challinor, who lives is a quiet spot high in the Lincolnshire Wolds. However, chatting with him, it was anything but a gentle Lincolnshire accent that I heard. It was most certainly from Liverpool, with the distinctive drawl of a born and bred Scouser.

The early start was well worth the effort, as I stood watching the small group of falconers preparing for the day with what I can only say were magnificent golden eagles sitting quietly on their wrists, sensing what lay ahead for them. I found a moment to ask Billy where his interest in falconry came from. Over a mug of tea, he told me his story of growing up with his parents in Liverpool. His father had a great interest in the outdoors and every spare minute would get him away from the block of flats they lived in, Billy often at his side.

Then one quiet afternoon and totally unexpectedly, a kestrel settled on the living room window. Billy, aged little more than 6, looked on in sheer amazement. With the help of his father, they managed to catch the kestrel and it soon became obvious the bird was accustomed to being handled. It did not take long to track down the owner and the next day the lost kestrel was safety returned. But more importantly for Billy it would prove a life-changing moment – a moment at the age of just 6 years old when he knew what it was he wanted to do with his future.

Just a couple of years later, with the help of his father, Billy acquired his first hawk – a sparrowhawk called Star. He was soon learning the basics of falconry, as Star would fly and come back to his glove. His collection of birds grew; along with his father he built an aviary and had several kestrels, plus, another sparrowhawk that lived in the house.

ea finished and looking around, we realised that everyone was ready to make a start and everyone jumped into vehicles. We drove a short distance before lining out across a field, with the falconers equally spread in the line. At that moment I was glad of the coat I had put on, with the strong biting wind coming off the North Sea, but it is a good day to be out flying our goldies was the comment.

Walking across the field, Billy told me how he became interested in hunting with his birds, which is regarded as the true art and skill of the falconer. It was the arrival of his first Harris’s hawk, named Cassie, which afforded him this opportunity and Billy’s move into working a hawk and training her to hunt.

He admitted to learning a lot with Cassie, which shaped his future as a falconer. I was especially warmed by the fact that he still has Cassie, now retired, a grand old lady aged 23, enjoying the comforts of life.

Our chat was suddenly interrupted by the bellowing shout of ‘Eagle’ over to our right. A swift turn of my head and I was watching a falconer slipping a golden eagle off his wrist as it swooped forward, eyes transfixed on a bolting hare now running at full pace.

In the few seconds that followed I witnessed the eagle flying and turning in the air in a show of acrobatics that was second to none. Then, legs out, a diving swoop to the hare. But not this time. The ever-agile hare turned at the last moment, running in a different direction, leaving the frustrated golden eagle standing on the ground, with no chance of getting airborne in time to continue the chase.

I could feel the beaming grin on my face as I turned back to Billy, who in his Scouse accent said, lessons learnt, young birds will benefit from days like this, as they gain respect for the prey and their handler. We all paused for a few minutes as the chatter in the line was full of amazement at what we had just witnessed. The falconer moved forward and his eagle was soon back on his wrist. We were ready to move on.

With the vision of witnessing my first eagle hunting etched on my mind, it was the obvious time to ask Billy how he became interested in golden eagles. It was, of all places, in Scotland. He was in Glenshee, watching and chatting with a group of falconers flying and working golden eagles. Billy invited some of the falconers to Lincolnshire, where he now had several farmers’ permissions to use their land for hunting. That was almost two decades ago and soon he had his first golden eagle to hunt with. He was called Midge and it was the turning point in Billy’s ever-growing passion to become a talented falconer, able to train and hunt with his birds.

Sadly, Midge died four years ago, which was a tough time for Billy, but he managed to acquire another golden eagle from the same parents. Now approaching 5 years old, Jim is still a young bird and almost trained, but walking across the field I could see the bond between Jim and Billy. That very same look I have seen many times in the eyes of a working dog when you are out shooting for the day. Jim certainly has his own character and nature, as Billy says, golden eagles are a challenge to train compared with other birds. When they are young, they see you as their mother; then as they grow, they see you as a sibling; as they get older, they will challenge you and know how to hurt you – but we must never forget they are, in the wild, the apex predator.

As the rest of the morning unfolded, I felt privileged to witness several eagles, including Jim, giving me an insight into the amazing world of hunting with them. Not every release was a successful hunt, but for me that mattered not; just to see, at close range, the beauty of a golden eagle hunting was reward enough. The speed and power of a bird with a wingspan of up to six feet, able to turn then swoop on its quarry, was breathtaking.

Yet they only ever hunted for hares, ignoring the pheasants and partridge that could be found. The reason was remarkably simple: training is only ever associated with food and the food is ground game and fur, not feather and flying. But that ground game could include the small invasive Muntjac deer – but weighing in as little as eight pounds, a golden eagle may need help if it were able to catch one.

After one of the most fascinating mornings I have enjoyed in a long time, it was a slow walk back to the vehicles and a much-needed bite of lunch, but time for a question I had wanted to ask Billy all morning: What is a Scouser doing in Lincolnshire? With his typical mischievous smile, the answer came, in the broadest of Liverpudlian accents.

Billy is no stranger to the county; in fact, he had been flying many species of birds here for the best part of two decades. It was on the back of this that he moved to The Wolds, where he has more room for a growing number of birds and access to countryside to fly them. But the house move, which happened little more than a year ago, is only the first part of the story.

Looking to the future, now with a lifetime of experience in the world of falconry, Billy is establishing a fast-growing reputation for giving people the opportunity to not just have an experience day of handling and flying birds of prey, but to also train and explore the wider world of falconry.

As a hobby and sport, falconry has never been more popular. I know this from my own observations of the crowds it draws at the many country fairs. But to have the ability of a seasoned falconer on a one-to-one educational experience, residential if needed, where the day can be tailored to suit your individual needs, is the future for Billy as he settles into his new home in Lincolnshire. From witnessing a falconer training, working and hunting with a golden eagle, to Harris’s hawk walks, which allow you to walk with a Harris’s hawk on your arm, as Billy talks about the history of falconry and the sport of hunting with them.

It was a quiet drive home after a full and pleasurable day watching golden eagles do what they do best, flying and hunting. But I could not get out of my mind reading A Kestrel for a Knave many years before and comparing the early experiences of Billy, back in Liverpool, with the character of the same name in the book, in South Yorkshire. The book’s title, A Kestrel for a Knave, is taken from The Book of Saint Albans, printed in 1486, which lists a collection of interests of a gentleman and pairs appropriate birds with social ranks of the day: 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 – but here I feel the ‘Knave’ is a man of humble birth, not the scoundrel so often associated with the modern use of the word.

As a young boy, Billy started his falconry passion when a kestrel settled on the living room window; today he flies the eagles of the emperor, now with a lifetime of falconry skills, but above all he gets immense pleasure in sharing that knowledge and his experience, which I saw and enjoyed in his company.

To learn more about Billy follow him on Facebook @ House of Hares

Photographs: Matt Limb OBE

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