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Issue 1 - Birds of a feather

Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002

 

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Birds of a feather

Elizabeth Walton experiences the soaring highs and swooping lows of the most noble of highland sports - grouse hawking. Pictures by Glyn Satterley

The grouse is king of the game birds, and for Highland guns it is the most demanding quarry. Yet how much more sporting and dramatic it is to match the quarry with another bird – a peregrine falcon. When a peregrine folds her graceful wings and plummets down from the sky to take her quarry, it is perhaps the fastest spontaneous action nature can produce.

Grouse hawking is top-of-the-range falconry. Only the most experienced falconers and the best hawks are equal to its challenges. It is a rare and wonderful sight, and if my luck is in, I am about to witness a thrilling contest of breathtaking speed and agility. The hooded peregrine on falconer Ted Robert’s gloved fist is about to do battle. Despite a name that belies her ferocious instinct, Hattie is a fifth-season hawk bred in the peregrine purple. She draws a low, admiring whistle from her handler, comfortable with the stark realities of the animal world. “My God, she can go …” he says quietly. “She’s taken off this season. She can kill ‘em stone dead in the air.”

Hobbit, his indefatigable pointer, is quartering the heather. Warm August sun gleams silver on the hill lochs lying below us. The sky is enormous and in the distance, the Moray Firth is towing the North Sea inland towards Inverness. The scene has remained virtually unchanged since the time of Scotland’s hero-king, Robert the Bruce. The ancient art of falconry, flying a trained hawk to take wild quarry, was introduced to the British Isles by the returning crusaders; peregrine and gyr falcons soon became an exclusive badge of honour for the nobility. Trudging, hot-faced, through the heather I am linked straight back to history.

The rigours of this sport are such that today’s home-grown falconry élite can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Ted Roberts, striding up the hill ahead of me, is a master of the art. Experts say with good game hawks, this is probably the finest sport in the world. With bad hawks, it’s probably the worst.

See a good hawk fly, and the falconer’s task looks so easy. “It isn’t,” says Ted, and 40 or so years experience informs his trenchant opinion. “All my time is spent looking after my hawks: I don’t do anything else.” Discipline, flair and precision are required to do the job to perfection. Ted has complete faith in his ability to do the job well, but his confidence is tempered with due humility. “I go out and fly my hawks, I hope, in style,” he explains. “Some people will never make it if they live to be a hundred.” What is essential, he adds, “is that little bit extra that’s born in you.” For me, the appropriate term for that mystery ingredient is a bond with nature.

Ted has his eye on Hobbit as she tries to pick up the scent of a covey of grouse. The landowner, Lord Laing, had been pessimistic: “It’s not a good year for the grouse ...” he’d frowned. And Ted agrees: “We’ve been a bit short so far,” but grouse hawking is not a numbers game, insists Andy Gray, Ted’s dashing apprentice. “Its purpose is to improve the ability of your hawk,” he tells me. Just one grouse, one good flight, and the three-way partnership of falconer, dog and hawk is content. Abrace, and it’s champagne time.

Legs aching, I begin to take every inch of Carn Kitty’s 1,709ft rather personally. It is a truth universally acknowledged that every route in the Highlands leads upwards. “On no account lose any altitude,” is the tongue-in-cheek advice offered by retired naval commander Robbie Wilson as he spurs me on, and Lance Gibson lends a hand to haul me across a peat hag. He is a veterinary surgeon, so I invite him to put me down should I fail to stay the course. “Verbally or otherwise ...?” he enquires, and this band of jokers wear their skills lightly.

To a man they suffer from ‘peregrinitis’. It’s a disease, they laugh; catch it and you’re doomed. They are in the Highlands for the fun of it, nevertheless Robbie confesses to some trepidation at the thought of flying his young hawk in front of Ted. Andy, whose mentor describes his as “an absolute natural,” readily confirms that putting your hawk up in front of anyone, let alone Ted, is nerve-wracking.

In one blessed moment when we pause and I lean on my thumbstick to catch my breath, I am invited to get the measure of the wing muscles that will support Hattie’s lethal aerobatics. Beneath her subtle plumage, they are taught and powerful. Ted says, “When I slip her, I can feel her push my hand away.” Trained on partridge three or four times a week in southern England, Hattie is fit for the fray.

“Grouse hawking is very, very hard on a hawk,” Ted explains. To ‘wait on’, to make height above you, and to circle above you at the highest altitude she can, and then to stoop when you flush the dog … it’s very hard work. You have to feed a falcon up so that she’s in very high condition, muscled up to beat the prevailing winds.” With grouse, a hawk can be single-minded: there are few distractions in the Highlands. Up here you don’t see a lot of ‘check’ – pigeons, crows and suchlike. But if they’re right obedience-wise, a crow flies underneath ’em and they won’t even look at it. The secret is, the first two or three slips up here – you show them quarry.” Easier said than done when your quarry is the wily grouse.

Brushing away the midges, I am clambering upwards again when suddenly Hobbit goes on point, her tail rigid. Ted slips his hawk, her hood removed, and as she begins to mount I wonder – is it right this time? Grouse hawking is all about positioning, like a magical game of chess. It tolerates no compromise, and each component – man, dog, and hawk – must be in the right place at the right time.

The azure of the sky is broken by puffy white clouds and as blue changes to white, we can watch the hawk, honed to perfection by evolution, climbing away from the Firth until she is a black speck soaring above us. Her binocular vision will be locked on to Hobbit, not the falconer. At this stage, she knows Hobbit is in command. As her elegant, long wings battle with the draughts of air funnelling up the hill, Hattie makes the task of gaining height look effortless.

Hunkered down, the grouse know a predator has them in her sights. Ted, too, is concentrating on the hawk, and he walks around the point to get upwind. The balance of power now shifts towards him as he times the flush in Hattie’s favour. She is waiting-on, maintaining her height against the wind and gliding in large circles above us. When she reaches a turn, going down wind, Ted sends in Hobbit to flush the grouse. They explode out of the heather over the pointer’s head, and the deadly duel is on. The hawk puts in a tremendous stoop, disturbing in its menace and accuracy. She drops some 200ft to level out above the grouse. In a flash, it is outflown, and we hear the lethal ‘thwack’ of her feet as her prey is taken.

The fight is won. It was all over in seconds, but it was an awesome sight. I hear the vet murmur appreciatively, “She’s a good footer …” meaning Hattie takes her prey well and cleanly.

Like us, Hobbit saw the hawk stoop. Quivering, she edges towards the kill and lies down. Hawks don’t share, and Hattie mantles over her grouse, spreading her glistening wings, beak open, to command the pointer’s submission. Eventually Hattie begins plucking the grouse, and Hobbit is allowed to blow playfully into the feathers falling all around them in the heather.

“Marvellous … it’s a heck of a feeling,” Ted grins as he eases Hattie carefully off her kill. The grouse is stowed in his game bag, and the hawk is back on his fist, her hood replaced.

Exhaustion forgotten, I had shared in sensation on a extraordinarily grand scale. It was a privilege to be on the hill with the dream team of Hattie, Hobbit and their handler. And for the record, the veterinary surgeon did not put me down: instead he turned his hand to culinary skills, and the grouse was roasted for a delicious dinner.