Posted on

The History of Falconry in Britain – Part Three

picture of a metal weather vane at The Falconry School

The mid-20th Century to the present day

In the 1950s and 60s, wild populations of raptors were decimated by the use of pesticides in Britain and other countries, particularly the USA. The iconic Peregrine was the most obvious victim of these chemicals. This put the spotlight on birds of prey, and may have contributed to a renewed interest in falconry, along with the public starting to see demonstrations of falconry at the annual CLA Game Fair and elsewhere.

redtailed buzzard on glove
Redtailed Buzzard

At this time, because there were very few falconers to learn from, there was a need for “beginner birds” – easy hawks to train, and for the first time Kestrels and Common Buzzards began to be trained. These could be taken from the wild with a limited number of licences issued by the Home Office.

The problem with these species is that they are of limited value for hunting, so once they are trained their usefulness is almost at an end. To improve this situation, a few Redtailed Buzzards were imported from the United States. These are relatively easy to train but will also take a wide variety of quarry.

A number of other species were also imported, particularly the goshawk, which went a long way towards giving the increasing number of falconers something to fly. In those days when falconers perhaps were less skilled, and we had no radio tracking, many goshawks were lost. Before long we once more had a native goshawk population, due entirely to falconers.

In the early 1970s, to give novice falconers another easy hawk to train and fly, the Harris Hawk was imported from the USA. At first, this species was known as the Bay-Winged Hawk, and is properly known as the Harris’s Hawk, although it is not a hawk at all, but a form of buzzard.

The Harris has probably had the most influence on falconry in Britain since the widespread of the gun. It eclipsed the Redtailed Buzzard in popularity, due to the ease of training and general user-friendliness. It very quickly became so popular that, by the 1980s, each one could be worth up to £2000. However, they are very easy to breed, and even though they have become the most popular species to fly, nowadays in real terms they are perhaps a twentieth of that price.

Today we have a great variety of birds of prey to fly, including hybrids. We are still able to hunt wild quarry, and we also have artificial prey to chase. Probably 80% of falconers only fly Harris Hawks, in spite of the possibility to fly more exacting and interesting species.

close up of harris hawk sitting on pole in field
Harris hawk

Standards and quality in falconry have sadly declined as it has become easier to “have a go” at the sport. Finding land to fly on becomes increasingly more difficult. Driven pheasant shooting has become a multi-million pound industry, and yet gamekeepers, and to some extent landowners, still have the 18th Century mindset where any single raptor could threaten the huge population of domestically bred and released pheasants and partridges.

In the face of all this, there is tremendous scope for a falconer to excel in their chosen sport, as long as they are prepared to work at it and learn.

Posted on

The History of Falconry in Britain – Part Two

painting entitled Hawking Party by the Flemish School

The Stuart era to the mid-20th Century

At the beginning of the Stuart dynasty, falconry was still one of the favoured and fashionable hunting sports, and was also still used as a way of providing game for the table. Sir Thomas Shirley’s 1603 “A Short Discourse of Hawking to the Field” and Edmund Bert’s “An Approved Treatise on Hawks and Hawking”, published in 1619 (a book dedicated to flying the goshawk), were both written when the practice of falconry was still in its heyday.

However, the Civil War of the 1640s led to a massive increase in the manufacture of firearms. When peace returned, the country was ruled by Puritans who considered hawking, and many other pastimes, to be just the frivolous pursuits of the defeated aristocracy, and as many more people could now afford a gun to bring game to their kitchens, which was much easier than training hawks for the purpose, the sport of falconry just fell out of fashion.

engraving from 1605 of King James 1 on a hawking trip
Engraving from 1605 of King James 1 on a hawking trip

Although a few of the upper class gentlemen (and a few ladies) continued to fly falcons from the mid-1600s until the early 1800s, the sport almost, but not quite, disappeared.

During this period, the gun evolved from something used to bag a stationary pheasant, rabbit or duck, to a sophisticated weapon capable of instantaneous detonation, with the ability to bring to earth two flying birds with consecutive shots.

This of course meant that shooting became more than just a way of putting game in the pot. It turned into a way of demonstrating the shooter’s skill, or even a mark of their nobility.

In order to be able to show this, the provision of more and more game became necessary. Gamekeepers were employed, who had to preserve as much game as possible for their masters and their master’s guests. Anything which was believed to threaten their gamebirds was ruthlessly deterred, whether these were raptors, or corvids, or indeed any predator on four legs or even two.

The goshawk particularly was heavily persecuted, becoming very scarce by the late 18th Century, and rendered extinct in Britain around a hundred years later. Almost no falconers flew goshawks between the 1650s and the 1950s. Anyone flying, and particularly losing, any trained hawk or falcon had the added risk of their bird being shot before they could call it in or recapture it.

In the early 19th Century, there was a small revival in the sport, with a few clubs being formed. These were a little like modern-day foxhunting packs, where people subscribed to the club, which in turn employed professionals to show sport to the club members. In most cases the club members never actually flew falcons themselves, but rather saw them flown by the professional falconers. The clubs were dedicated to flights at the red kite and the heron, with everyone enjoying the chase on horseback, again in a similar way to fox hunting. From the mid-19th Century until the First World War, the Hawking Club (later known as the Old Hawking Club) provided sport for its members on Salisbury Plain, rook hawking for a few weeks every year in the springtime.

After the Great War, the British Falconers’ Club was formed. This was no longer a club providing sport for its members, but was a club of largely amateurs who flew their own hawks, or were friends of those who did. Just a very few people continued to own and hunt with hawks and falcons. At the first Game Fair in 1958, the secretary of the BFC stated that the club had some 120 members, but only about 25 of those were practising falconers. So it remained until the 1960s, when there was a revolution in the sport of falconry.

image from newspaper article of the first game fair of the British Falconer Club in 1958
First game fair British Falconer Club, 1958
Posted on

The History of Falconry in Britain – Part One

sketch from the 1240s, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus

How old is falconry?

Falconry is defined as the sport of taking wild quarry, by the use of trained birds of prey. We know from tomb paintings that the sport was well established and practised in China at least two thousand years ago, and it is thought by some that it may well be four thousand years old or more.

The art of falconry was probably brought to Britain in the 7th or 8th century by European invaders, and hawks were signs of status as well as being used as a means of catching game birds and waterfowl for food.

Falconry in history

There are many references to hawking in literature and illustrations in these early times, such as from the Anglo-Saxon epic poem of the Battle of Maldon, which took place in 991 CE. The chieftain Byrhtnoth symbolically releases his hawk to the woods before the battle commences:

he let him þa of handon     leofne fleogan

hafoc wið þæs holtes,     and to þære hilde stop;

he let from his hand fly his beloved hawk
away to the woods and then to battle he stepped

Even in the Bayeux Tapestry we see William in 1066 sailing towards the British coast complete with hawks and hunting dogs, so he was obviously intending to have some time for fun, whether or not he was victorious at Hastings!

Falconry for food

The goshawk, with its size, speed and agility, was supreme for the purpose of hunting the pheasant, partridge or duck, and so was used extensively for hunting in Britain for close to 900 years.

In Medieval times, the goshawk became known as “la cuisiniere”, or “cook’s hawk” but was in fact flown by all classes of people from the yeoman up to the king. Hawks were, of course, taken from the wild, and their nests and nest sites were jealously guarded.

The noble sport

Things were about to change, and for the privileged few, a new and exciting form of the sport reached Britain’s shores. From the 12th century onwards, crusaders on their campaigns in the Middle East saw falcons being flown at quarry. These came to be known as “longwinged hawks”, or “hawks of the tower” because of their towering or high flight.

These flights provided a much greater spectacle for the onlooker, and of course this quality of flight will also result in fewer quarry caught. There was also much more chance of the falcon being lost, so flights were followed on horseback.

This in turn meant that flying falcons became the province of the wealthy, the nobility and royalty, and in Medieval times, knowledge about falconry and the ability to handle and fly falcons was a mark of status and breeding.

In those days in Britain, the language of the nobility was French, and many of the terms and phrases we use in falconry today come from that time, such as “bechin” and “creance”.

High flight

In Tudor times falconry reached its golden age. The flights of the falcons would have been at herons and cranes and at the red kite, as these quarries gave the highest and best pursuits for the delight of the falconers and onlookers, and were known as “le haut vol” – the high flight.

This was 500 years before falcons were domestically bred, so these were wild taken from the nest, known as an eyrie, so are known as “eyasses”. Some were trapped as older birds that had the experience of hunting every day in the wild.

The very best falcons were “haggards”, which were caught showing their mature plumage, so were at least one year old, and had all the expertise of hunting successfully every day, possibly for years. It goes without saying that they were also the hardest to train, and the falconers who could accomplish this were the most admired.

The noble falcon

The peregrine is our largest native falcon, and we now know it is the fastest creature on the planet. It was known as the falcon gentle – the noble falcon – and was the most used for hunting by the aristocracy of Britain and Europe.

Ladies were also often known to fly the dainty merlin, and falcons were brought from far-flung countries to be trained and flown in Britain – the saker from the east, the lanner from Africa, and the biggest falcon in the world was obtained from the cold and inhospitable lands of the north – the mighty gyrfalcon.

Falconry lady on horseback
Posted on

Falconry Beginners Tips

man with falcon on arm during team building event at The Falconry School

Are you just starting with falconry or are you seriously considering it? The Falconry School provides falconry courses and you can e-mail or phone for free advice on 07970 038169 (UK). Below is just a selection of topics we think are critical for the beginner falconer.

Before You Start

Remember you are taking on a live creature, which is essentially wild, even though it is domestically bred. You will need time for it EVERY day. Remember you will have this bird-of-prey to FLY, not just to look at, and not as a fashion accessory. Although they look cute, cuddly, and in some cases large and impressive, owls have no place in the sport of falconry. They can be difficult or impossible to train properly, and even when trained the results are at best disappointing. To get a flavour of what the sport is about, read as many proper informative falconry books as possible, to get an idea of what you will be taking on. Treat everything you find on the internet with suspicion. Some information there is good, but much of it is poor, and if you haven’t got experience you won’t know which is which. You may be very lucky, and find an genuinely experienced local falconer who will help you, but otherwise join The Falconry School’s Mentoring Scheme. Go on a good course for at least two days to get a feel of the whole thing.


Most of all, make sure you have the correct housing, food and equipment before your bird arrives. The correct accommodation for a falconry bird is not an aviary, but should be a fully-enclosed “mews” (a modified wooden shed is OK) for initial training and afterwards every night. From the time when the hawk is at least part trained, during the day the bird is “weathered” – tethered to its perch, with a bath within reach, if possible on a lawn, but under a lean-to-shelter (a “weathering shelter”) in case of bad weather or very hot summer sun. The weathering lawn may need to be fenced to keep out dogs or foxes if no-one is around to look after the hawk. Domestic cats are not usually a problem.

Essentials of training

Training is a surprisingly short process. Most hawks can be trained to fly totally free and return to the falconer in about 3 weeks, or even less.

Condition control

The hawk must be a little hungry when flown, as it ONLY returns to the falconer for food. It is weighed at the beginning of the training, and of course every day afterwards. The falconer will expect to reduce the fat weight of the hawk by about 10-15% to start with, and will adjust this “flying weight” a little if necessary. It is also important to know that “flying weight” is not a fixed figure, and will need to be adjusted upwards as the hawk’s muscle mass, fitness and “manning” level develops.


This is a process whereby the hawk is made steady to all the things it has to see when in a captive state. The hawk is firstly expected to take food on the glove, which will require a reduction in weight to make it hungry enough to do this. Afterwards, the hawk can be carried around whilst eating. This can help to take its mind off any scary sights and sounds. To make the meal last longer, we use “tirings”, which are pieces of meat with bones in , which the hawk can only eat slowly. The longer the meal lasts, the more manning the hawk gets every day. If you try to man the hawk without tiring, it will take much longer, and it will never be as steady as one which is manned using tirings. HAWKS KEPT IN FAT CONDITION DO NOT MAN, and will NEVER be trained.

REMEMBER: Hawks return to the falconer for food, NOT for affection, and must be a little hungry when flown. Appetite is almost entirely induced by the reduction in body fat. It is not possible to start training without weight control.


All birds of prey eat raw meat only. It is common to feed a day-old chicks, but this diet is not sufficient on its own. You should feed a varied diet, including possibly quail, rats or mice, along with a vitamin/mineral supplement. A wide choice of hawk food is now available, blast-frozen and packed neatly in boxes, and can be delivered to your door.

Choice of hawk

There are differing opinions, but if you intend to go an to take wild quarry, a Harris Hawk is very user-friendly, robust, and easy to train and handle. However, they are unlike any other raptor used in falconry, so will have given you less experience when you come to move on to something more challenging. You could also consider a Redtailed Buzzard. Although they are slightly harder for a beginner, they will give you a better idea when it comes to progressing to falconry at a higher level. With any bird that will not generally catch anything its usefulness ends as soon as it is trained, whereas the Harris or Redtail will go on taking quarry and improving over months or years. AVOID anything small, like a barn owl or kestrel, and there is no margin for error with weight, and once they are trained there is little else to do with them. NEVER think of the hard birds like goshawks, sparrowhawks or eagles until you are very experienced. Some of the middle-sized to larger falcons are relatively easy to train, but will ALWAYS need to be flown with radio-tracking equipment. You may be interested in owls, and some species can be flow successfully, and some will even take quarry. However, if it is your intention to fly at quarry you may be giving yourself a very hard time.

Radio tracking equipment

This is NOT a question of choice. For many reasons, the most important being the welfare of your hawk, a good working system that you know how to operate properly is ESSENTIAL. A Harris or Redtail, trained properly and flown in the correct condition, is not likely to be lost. However, they ARE regularly lost by inexperienced falconers, and it is likely most will not survive in the wild. Tracking equipment is NOT a shortcut to training a hawk properly, but is the next best thing to a guarantee that you will get your hawk back if anything unforeseen occurs. A good system is probably going to cost more than the bird, but remember that you keep the system for many years, and it will help to locate lost hawks time and time again. NEVER buy a cheap system. You will not have an effective guarantee if it goes wrong, and they are ALWAYS inferior in operation.

Posted on

The art of falconry has been with us for thousands of years

Asian falconer with eagle

Falconry may have been with us for up to 4000 years, and could have originated in China. It probably came to Britain in the 7th Century. It was a sport for some and a means of catching food for others, depending on the prosperity of the falconer, until the gun became a more efficient method of filling the larder, and falconry almost disappeared. Luckily, the sport was perpetuated by a few sportsmen, and we have therefore had an unbroken line of falconers in Britain for more than 1200 years.

In modern times it has also become an education and conservation issue. You may be surprised to know that, in Britain at least, populations of most birds-of-prey have dramatically increased in the last 30 years. This in a large part attributable to falconers, who have both pioneered captive-breeding and also educated the public, landowners, gamekeepers etc. about raptors and conservation, through entertaining them at the various country fairs etc. throughout the country.