Photo: Laura Keens. Graham with a Harris hawk near the Cage & Aviary Birds offices. After a total lack of interest at first, he now calls it ‘both the best and worst thing that has happened to English falconry’.
Following on from his ‘My history of hawking’ feature in the December 13, 2017 issue, Graham Wellstead explains why an unfortunate series of events led him fly a Harris hawk – and how it turned everything he’d previously thought about the species on its head.
UP UNTIL the introduction of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, falconry was still a very low-number sport and it was expected to die out. The success of captive breeding led to an explosion in numbers, but we still knew
how many keepers there were. When registration ceased for 90 per cent of people, we no longer had any idea. Hawks and hawk displays became commonplace. Almost everyone knew one or more people who kept, flew, or bred Harris hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus).
In the 1980s, I was happy with my red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and was now flying peregrine falcons, so my life was complete. My all-time favourite bird was a tiercel peregrine who, in my eyes, walked on water and flew like silk. Blind in one eye for 12 of his 17 years, Midnight – of whom I have written before in these pages – was my greatest joy and, although I have no peregrines now, I would like to finish my hawking life with one.
I made it clear, both in talking and writing, that I was not interested in the Harris. It looked like a chicken and offered no challenge when being trained. It did it – you watched. For teaching people, I continued to use the good old stalwart buzzards, until a friend, having been taught by me, set her heart on flying a small male Harris. We found an ex-display bird that was still under five years old. He had never hunted and that suited her, as he was just going to follow and come to the fist during a long walk. Bomb-proof with her dogs, he was perfect. Then she took ill, so I flew him. Given the opportunity to hunt he did – with a vengeance. Rabbits, squirrels, hen pheasants and, one day, a pair of common shrews engaged in congress! Having for some time wanted nothing to do with this species, I was hooked. Not too long after, I took up a male Harris who was probably the best all-round hawk I have ever flown.
As my teaching sessions expanded, so too did my hawk population. Nine falcons, all different, and, aside from breeding birds, I had four red-tailed hawks: two flown as a cast (two birds flying together) and eventually, six Harris hawks, three of each sex. The original male was very dominant and, if one of the other males landed in a tree next to a female, he was promptly knocked down.
It was exciting and, in the summer months, often painful. When you call all six of them in, they can’t all fit on the glove, so you have them right up your arm, which with short-sleeved summer shirts means you end up full of holes.
A group of six replicated the way in which the Harris hunts as a family group and was entertaining to watch. They progressed from six individuals to a team, with one only shy female hanging back, who acted as long stop; a natural thing and very satisfying.
Now, without any doubt, the Harris hawk is the most popular bird in modern falconry. Properly trained and kept fit,
it will do everything you ask and the majority are very steady in the most trying of circumstances. However, as time has gone on, I have seen several problems. Many birds are not now so easy going with strangers; some hate dogs and attack them, and one female I have, who is a lovely bird, has a hatred of tractors and will disappear towards the far country the moment she hears one.
While I now hold the Harris hawk in higher regard, I also believe it is perhaps both the best and the worst thing that has happened to English falconry. It is so readily available, easy to train, fly and accommodate that it presents little in the way of a challenge. As most people do not have the time during the week, it becomes a weekend hawk and therefore does not always reach its potential.
If someone trains exclusively on a Harris and then decides to try another species, they often have something of
a culture shock. When I was teaching, I used a spread of species and my students were shown how to handle everything, except eagles. Under instruction, they flew falcons and various hawks – and sometimes owls – so received a proper grounding, but today the ubiquitous Harris hawk rules.
Our falconry is becoming too focused, and the knowledge and skill of handling other species is being lost. Not too long ago, I gave a talk on aviary security to a falconry club. I knew no-one in the room except the chairman, who was a professional, so I asked the approximately 80 people present: “Put your hand up if you fly anything other than a Harris hawk.” Only the chairman and I raised a hand.
Graham Wellstead runs Wey Valley Falconry in Surrey.
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