A History of Falconry in the UK

“Falconry, an ancient cultural heritage, is a living testament to the age-old bond between man and bird. An art form in its own right, falconry has a history that is as rich and varied as the species it celebrates.”

With its roots tracing back to an astounding 4,000 years or more, falconry, the art of hunting with trained birds of prey, is an age-old practice steeped in tradition and cultural significance. Its origins, as with many ancient practices, are a matter of debate, with speculation placing its inception between 4,000 and 6,000 BC in the expanses of Mongolia, or even earlier within the confines of the Middle East or Arabia.

Falconry: A Bird’s Eye View

Falconry is defined as a hunting sport where wild game is pursued and seized by trained raptors. These birds of prey have been domesticated and disciplined to respond to the falconer’s commands, demonstrating a unique symbiosis between man and bird. The practice, as we know it today, involves not just hunting, but also the long-term nurturing, training, and care of the bird, creating a unique bond between falconer and falcon.

The Early Days of Falconry

Falconry’s origins are as elusive as the birds it celebrates. Some experts believe that the practice began as a means of procuring food, with the ancient peoples training birds to hunt on their behalf. This was not a sport, but a survival technique, a way to ensure a steady supply of prey. Evidence of this can be found in tomb paintings and other archaeological artefacts from China, dating back at least two thousand years.

Although falconry might have been established in Asia and the Middle East by 2,000 BC, it gradually found its way to Europe, likely introduced by European invaders in the 7th or 8th century. The sport quickly gained ground, with hawks becoming symbols of status and authority. The more powerful the bird, the higher the falconer’s standing in society.

Falconry in Literature and Art

One of the earliest instances of falconry in literature is found in the epic Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘The Battle of Maldon’, which recounts a historic battle in 991 CE. The poem’s protagonist, the chieftain Byrhtnoth, releases his treasured hawk into the woods before the battle commences, symbolising his readiness for combat. This act of releasing the hawk is a potent metaphor and reflects the deep bond between the falconer and his bird, a bond strong enough to be relinquished only in the face of death.

Falconry: The Sport of Kings

During the Middle Ages, falconry transformed from a subsistence activity to a pastime for the elite, a ‘sport of kings’. Kings and noblemen prized falcons not just for their hunting prowess, but for the status and prestige they conferred. This period saw the introduction of the ‘Laws of Ownership’, a set of regulations that dictated the types of birds that individuals of different social classes could own and train.

A nobleman with his falcon

“According to these laws, an emperor could own an eagle, a king could own a gerfalcon, a duke could own a peregrine, whereas a yeoman was permitted to own a goshawk, and a servant, a kestrel. Stealing a trained raptor was considered a serious crime, punishable by death”

The Goshawk: The Cook’s Hawk

The goshawk, known in Medieval times as ‘la cuisinière’, or ‘cook’s hawk’, was a popular bird of prey during this period. With its size, speed and agility, it was supremely suited for hunting pheasants, partridges or ducks. These birds were taken from the wild, and their nests and nesting sites were fiercely protected. The goshawk was not just a tool for hunting; it was a treasured companion, a symbol of the falconer’s skill and status.

The Arrival of Longwinged Hawks

The sport of falconry underwent a significant change when ‘longwinged hawks’ or ‘hawks of the tower’ were introduced to Britain in the 12th century. These falcons, observed by crusaders on their campaigns in the Middle East, soared high in the sky before swooping down on their prey, providing a spectacular display for onlookers.

The flights were so high and the birds so swift that falconers had to follow them on horseback to keep track. The risk of losing these valuable birds and the cost of maintaining them meant that falconry became a pastime for the wealthier classes. The ability to handle and train these falcons came to be seen as a mark of nobility and breeding.

Falconry in the Tudor Period

The Tudor period marks the golden age of falconry. Falcons were flown at herons, cranes, and red kites, their soaring flights providing exhilarating pursuits for the falconers and spectators. These flights were known as ‘le haut vol’, or the high flight.

These falcons were taken from the wild, from nests known as ‘eyries’, and were thus known as ‘eyasses’. Some were trapped as older birds, already experienced in hunting in the wild. The best falcons were the ‘haggards’, mature birds captured in their prime. These birds had honed their hunting skills over the years, making them exceptionally challenging to train. Falconers who could train a haggard were held in the highest esteem.

Peregrine Falcon

Falconry’s Decline and Resurgence

By the 1800s, falconry saw a decline in popularity in Europe due to a combination of factors. The decline of the aristocracy, the advent of firearms for hunting, and the expansion of agriculture led to a diminished interest in the sport. However, interest in falconry began to rise again around the turn of the 20th century in North America.

Falconry saw another resurgence in the 1920s and 1930s, during which the first significant falconry association, the Peregrine Club, was established in the United States. Today, falconry is practised throughout the world, though its practice is banned in some countries and tightly regulated in others.

Despite the changes in society and the evolution of hunting practices, the art of falconry continues to endure, a testament to the timeless bond between humans and birds.

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