Photo: Laura Keens. Graham recently flew his Harris hawk in the fields near to the C&AB office

GRAHAM WELLSTEAD has flown many species of birds of prey during his nearly 70 years of keeping them. Here he recounts some of his first experiences with sparrowhawks, buzzards and the mighty red-tailed hawk.

I HAVE been involved with the world of falconry for most of my life. Not just as a falconer, but also an ornithologist and a wildlife conservationist, the latter long before it became fashionable. I had my first bird 68 years ago at about 12 years of age – or it might have been aged 11 and, therefore, the timescale is 69 years.

Falconry lays claim to being the oldest continuous association between man and a wild creature. A bird’s maybe, but I believe the dog to have a longer ancestral lineage. The first recorded evidence of falconry is a bas-relief showing a Persian falconer flying a bird of prey, which dates to 1,700BC. Tomb paintings and mummified dogs, already established breeds, go back another 2,000 years.

In my early years, the bird to have was a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) or a goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). I couldn’t have either, so I cut my teeth on a species still held at that time in high regard, the sparrowhawk (A. nisus). This species is mentioned in the Shakespeare play, The Merry Wives of Windsor: “Let us go hawking, for I have a hawk for the bush.”  This comment still holds good today, because this little hawk and, the even smaller male (musket), can be flown almost anywhere. In spite of its name, his hawk does not major on sparrows; the female takes wood pigeons and collared doves, while the male will catch nothing larger than a blackbird.

When I was flying musket spars at blackbirds you needed a licence – and probably still do – with the maximum number set at 47. Blackbirds are canny and when you are out with the hawk, you are lucky to catch any. Over the years, I rarely broke into double figures, so whoever set that arbitrary number had not hawked a musket spar for very long. 

When I was a boy, I tried to the join the British Falconers Club, but I did not move in the right circles so my hopes of one day flying a peregrine falcon or a mighty goshawk were dashed. I continued to repair and fly injured hawks, until one day my ship came in and a Lord of the realm, no less, gave me a male buzzard. He (the buzzard) taught me a lot, especially how fine the difference was in his weight between coming out of a tree and raising two fingers.

I continued to fly my buzzard, various kestrels, sparrowhawks and even merlins, until the Army interrupted me and I joined the colours. Four years later, I picked up where I left off and little changed. I still did not have the opportunity to fly a peregrine and only flew one goshawk, loaned to me, which was interesting. At the time I had access to a piece of land infested with a large number of pre-myxomatosis rabbits and the goshawk caught these at an astonishing rate. She never seemed to get bored and over three days accounted for 57. I had a job to close the freezer.

As goshawks were still difficult to get, I settled on a bird new to me – the American red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). This large American buzzard is ubiquitous in the States and is used there as a beginner’s bird. I often wonder how many “want-to-be” falconers in the US are put off by the grip that this bird can apply.

My first was a sad disaster. She manned beautifully, but when I dropped her weight to somewhere near response she began to have fits, throwing herself to one side and fitting madly. In the process, she broke all her main wing feathers on one side. I had spent a great deal of time with her and had so looked forward to flying such a beauty. It was frightening and horrible to see, and the poor thing died at four years old.

I still believed the red-tailed was the way to go, so I obtained one, then two and bred them. I kept some, sold a few and, more by luck than judgement, began to increase their size. The fitting problem never reoccurred and all was well. My first home-bred hunting bird was a huge female, approaching 1.8kg (4lbs) at response.

She crushed rabbits, annihilated hares, destroyed muntjac and frequently tried her luck at roe deer, undaunted by being swept off as they headed into deep cover. I hunted with her for nearly 20 years before she became arthritic and finally died at the age of 29. This is something to bear in mind when taking up a hunting hawk – it can live a long time. A hawk is not just for Christmas and you cannot shove it in the cupboard like a fishing rod once the season is over.

By this time the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was in place and we were regulated into the ground. Provided everyone played by the rules, this was a good thing and, if anything, although I am sure it was not what certain sections of the community wanted, falconry took off. No longer able to take birds from the wild under licence, we were forced to breed our own. Within a few years, the government could not cope with the number of registrations and de-registered a high percentage. The red-tailed, along with another American bird, the Harris hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus), were produced in such numbers that prices began to fall and almost anyone could afford a bird of prey.

Graham Wellstead runs Wey Valley Falconry in Surrey.

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