Farm manager Tim May, of Kingsclere Estates, in Hampshire, first thought of inviting people to come to the farm to watch golden eagles hunting for hares after being approached last year by a local group of falconers wanting to exercise their birds. ?I said the falconers could fly their eagles in exchange for hosting five public days a season. Since then, every day has been sold out.?
The meet started with a cooked breakfast in an oak-framed barn. Tim briefed the 25 visitors about the day ahead. Our job was to act as beaters, walking-up 75 acres of oilseed rape and winter wheat. Joining us in the line would be five falconers with four eagles between them.
The hare-hunting season is from October to February and the falconers meet once a month on Kingsclere Estates. Lifelong falconer Roy Lupton explained that eagle falconry has its roots in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and China. ?The sport is growing in popularity in Britain,? he said, ?but it is an investment ? a golden eagle chick can cost between £4,000 and £5,000 ? and the birds require full-time care, so eagle falconry cannot be undertaken lightly.?
The weather conditions were far from ideal. A thick blanket of fog had engulfed the North Wessex Downs, meaning the air was thick with moisture. ?The birds cannot fly if their feathers get wet,? explained Roy as he took his four-year-old male eagle off his truck. The eagle?s name was Baby, but measuring more than 3ft in height with a 7ft wingspan and weighing 7lb 10oz, there was nothing infantile about this impressive bird.
After a brief ride in a beaters? wagon to the other side of the farm, we lined up across the field. The hooded eagles seemed fired-up about the hunt, letting out high-pitched cries.
Though the birds are flown nearly every day, the anticipation of hunting sends their adrenaline levels soaring. Falconer Gary Knight said, ?The eagles associate wearing a hood with flying which is why they are being so vocal. Their weight has to be carefully managed at this time of year. Each bird has an optimum hunting weight. If it?s too heavy, it will not fly so well.?
Hunting the hare
Falconer Peter Sibson was the first to spot a hare about 50 yards in front of us. After shouting, ?Eagle!? to flush it and claim the chunt for his bird, Peter slipped his eagle, named Merlin, from his triple-thickness leather glove. Farm assistant Henry Steel shouted for the beating line to be held as we watched the extraordinary spectacle unfold in front of us. The tension was palpable. Every time the hare twisted and turned there was a gasp from the spectators. Despite the eagle reaching a speed of around 45mph, the hare got to a blackthorn hedge seconds before it would have been caught. Merlin landed on the wet field exhausted and defeated. ?The weather conditions mean Merlin?s flight was a little laboured, as there is so much moisture in the air,? explained Peter. ?Only one in 10 slips results in a kill. Falconry is not about culling dozens of hares it?s about seeing the birds fly.?
?These days have changed my attitude to hares,? added Tim May. ?Due to the falconry days, I have changed some of my farming practices to provide more food and cover for the hares to build up the numbers.?
The next field of winter wheat was usually one of the most productive and the topography and wind direction were in the eagles? favour. This time Roy Lupton was the first to spy a hare. After shouting, ?Eagle!? he quickly removed Baby?s hood and its eyes immediately locked on to its prey. The eagle released its talons, stretched out its wings and swooped in on the racing hare. Baby dived on his quarry and pinned the hare to the ground, 150 yards away. Roy and I raced over to the bird that had its prize mantled beneath its enormous wings. Using a knife, Roy opened up the hare and fed his bird a reward of the heart and lungs. ?We only feed them the pluck,? he said, ?the rest of the carcase will be eaten for our dinner tonight ? nothing goes to waste?.
Back on the beaters? wagon, spectators Sue Matthews and her husband Brian were impressed by the morning?s display. ?We have both seen falconry demonstrations at game fairs, but seeing them hunt in the open is completely different,? said Sue.
The falconer?s art
On the drive after a lunch taken back in the barn, we spied a down of hares sitting on the brow of a gentle hill. The falconer next to me, Mark Dunn, slipped his bird, Ralph. Mark is involved with a company named Hawkforce that provides bird deterrent services. ?We fly Harris hawks and falcons at various locations including Hampton Court, Somerset House and the new Olympic site to scare off pigeon and seagulls,? he explained. The hares on the hill bolted in opposite directions but the eagle wisely honed in on one target. With its yellow feet and sharp talons outstretched, the eagle swooped on its quarry but missed as the hare leaped high into the air. ?That is a common tactic to outmanoeuvre a bird of prey,? said Mark as he called Ralph back.
The last drive saw falconer Wesley Murch and his two-year old female golden eagle, Oops, step up to the mark. As we watched her race towards a hare, Wesley explained how she acquired her name. ?I travelled to Germany to buy a male golden eagle, but was wrongly sold a female,? he said. ?Male golden eagles are preferable because they are around 30 per cent smaller than females. The extra weight means I have to carry my bird with a stick or my arm gets too tired and the smaller size of males makes them more nimble when hunting.?
By now, the fog had become even thicker, meaning Oops missed her target. ?Inclement weather like this makes it difficult for us to retrieve our birds,? explained Wesley, adding that each of the eagles is fitted with Marshall radio telemetry. ?If the eagle cannot see us it will simply land on the ground
and wait for us to find it, especially if its wings are wet.?
Wesley first became interested in falconry when he visited the Royal Bath & West Show at the age of 12. ?After holding a Harris hawk at the show, I became fixated on having one of my own,? he said. ?I saved £800, but a local breeder turned me away and told me to read Phillip Glasier?s Falconry & Hawking six times. It was frustrating at the time, but I see why he did it now. Most breeders want to see some sort of commitment to the sport before selling you a bird. It?s not a closed shop, however. Days like these are a great introduction to the sport.?
In total, the day was made up of five drives, with about 20 slips for one hare. If you are interested in taking up eagle falconry, a day at Kingsclere offers a real insight into what can be achieved. ?Golden eagles can live for up to 50 years in captivity,? said Roy. ?The sport of falconry is as much about the relationship between bird and falconer as it is about hunting
The day costs £65 per person. For more information, contact Richard Bandey, tel 01256 850221 or visit www.kingsclere-estates.co.uk.