The pinnacle of skill and beauty, grouse hawking is far more than just hunting, says Leopold Amory.
With his falcon waiting on at some 300 yards above his head, and his dog on point in the heather, the falconer looks rather relaxed as he walks across the moor, his hands joined behind his back. The English pointer is keeping a covey of grouse to their hiding place, and by now, even they know what is about to happen. They have spotted the little dot flying in circles high in the sky. They have encountered wild peregrines before, and experience has taught them to stay put until the threat goes. Only now, there is a dog on point, and a man closing in on the other side. Their options are thinning by the second and the cockbird decides to take the covey to flight into the wind. The man who looked so quiet explodes into one terrific shout addressed to his falcon, but the latter has disappeared from her position. Then, a whistling sound…
Falconry is understood as the art of capturing wild quarry in its natural environment with a trained bird of prey. Art can take many forms, but there is one that remained aesthetically consistent for centuries. On a trip to the Highlands, I discovered what is considered to be the pinnacle of the old sport: grouse hawking. Only a few are capable of training a falcon to capture grouse in flight, and very few have the confidence to turn it into an art. The art of perfection. Even I could recognise the beauty of a perfect flight when it struck me as the most spectacular display I had ever experienced in the field.
Firstly, the art of grouse hawking is visual. The diversity of the Scottish weather can highlight no to all details of the beautiful landscape. A peregrine can fly under any weather; only fog can limit the sport. The bleak moorland is the most inviting ground for gamehawking. The flights have no limit. The dog’s work is superb, running back and forth against the wind in search of the dream quarry. When the pointer acknowledges a firm scent, the falcon is unhooded and allowed to fly until it reaches its highest pitch. If everyone behaves accordingly, it is a perfect triangle relationship between the falconer, the dog and the peregrine.
Secondly, I find beauty in the character of the elitist falconers. Passion, dedication and madness are perhaps the essential qualities of an artist, but these gentlemen perform discreetly on a stage where only grouse are to judge them. If there is a spectator, they like to pretend that the drama takes place in the sky, out of their control. In fact, so much knowledge, skill and experience are required to bring about a good flight that the spectator will mostly appreciate the end result. However, there is more to be savoured in trying to understand these men when their falcon is up there. Understand how much they have sacrificed for this brief moment of grace, looking up and flirting with the sky, with their falcon sliding in the wind, and understand that they are not as relaxed as they look.
Thirdly, falconry is a celebration of nature. For a falconer to train his bird into an exceptional gamehawk, he needs real game. Wild game is the guarantee to provide challenging flights that will up-skill the falcon. In the British tradition, falconry is far more than just hunting. For some falconers, it has evolved from a sport to an art in that the bag is nearly irrelevant to determine success. Their best flights are often those where the grouse escapes, teaching themselves and the falcon to a greater level. Perfection is finding the perfect match in a quarry for an ever-learning falcon. A falconer pushes all birds involved to the limit of their flying abilities, shedding light on an incredible potential found in nature. These artists have developed an outstanding eye for beauty, assessing not only the look but also the mind of their falcon, and recognising the quarry’s intentions instantly. Flying almost every day for the good of their bird, they can never have enough of witnessing nature’s greatest forces unfold before their eyes.
Then, a whistling sound. A falcon literally falls from the sky and appears back in sight as she gets closer to the escaping covey of grouse. With her wings folded like the blade of an arrow, the peregrine cuts through the air with the sound of ripping canvas. She has selected her grouse and comes to strike it with the full speed of her stoop, both feet thrown forward to knock it down on impact. The grouse is blown out of the air in an explosion of feathers, hits the ground hard and bounces back up in the heather, dead. The falcon makes a loop to break her speed and comes back to claim her prize.