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Hawking on horseback

Part 1

Hawking on horseback

I have two loves (friends and family excluded, of course): riding and flying birds of prey. I also have pet hates: magpies and housework. Unfortunately there?s not much I can do about domestic chores, but I have, however, discovered a way of tackling the corvids of Carmarthenshire, by combining my horse and my hawk.

It?s hardly a novel solution ? falconers have been using horses in their pursuit of game for hundreds if not thousands of years, but handling a bird while mounted is new to me and it?s proved quite a challenge. My partners in the chase are Indy and Ned. Indy is a 15hh Irish draught-cross mare ? she is the engine of the outfit. At times she does go alarmingly quickly, but she is generally a reliable, if temperamental, vehicle. She also doubles as our camouflage. One of the reasons why I have always loved riding in the countryside is the ease with which I can observe all manner of wildlife.

Birds and animals are, it seems, far more willing to allow a four-legged horse to approach than the terrifying silhouette of a two-legged human. I have watched hares, rabbits and foxes for hours, and all from the comfort of the saddle. Even the ever-cautious crows and magpies of the area seem surprisingly trusting and tolerant of the horse. And I have always been frustrated at being unable to repeat this when out hunting with a bird on the fist.

My other partner, Ned, is an immature male Harris hawk, selected especially for this new venture. Red-tails have always been my bird of choice, but devoted as I am to the hawk, I am also well aware that they can at times be difficult and that was the last thing I wanted when perched on the back of a horse and travelling at speed. I was aiming at establishing a partnership, so I went for the trainability and the sociability of the Harris hawk, and I am mighty glad that I did. Within a week, Ned was flying free, following on and ready for action.

Throughout his training I had been slowly trying to accustom both horse and hawk to each other?s presence, but it soon became obvious that, though Ned was very happy in Indy?s company, she was not quite so enamoured. Every movement he made was watched with suspicion and greeted with an irate snort; every bate resulted in virtual hysteria on the horse?s part. It was clearly a case of unrequited love. The cure was the result of working in tandem with the horse?s stomach. Every time Indy was fed, she had to face her fear. Surprisingly, Ned seemed a lot less frightening when she had to eat her food directly next to his perch. From that moment, she didn?t bat an eyelid and training was able to proceed apace.

With food present to sweeten the pill, within days Indy became quite content to have Ned flying to the fist in front of her and behind her. She was not quite so keen on having him fly over her back, but an extra carrot soon sorted that problem out. All this time I had kept Ned without a bell, in case the noise would prove too much for my long-suffering horse she already had to put up with the sight of a bird of prey dartingaround her. Instead I called her to her food with the tinkle of a hawk bell and therefore hoped to build up positive associations with the noise.

Amazingly, it worked. Attaching the bell to Ned and adding noise to movement did not seem to have any impact. Indy?s last lesson ? and one that was vital for her to learn if she was to be a real asset when out hunting ? was to stand still and remain standing still when her reins were dropped to the ground. She quickly learned what was required, and now it was my turn to learn some new skills.

I had to teach myself to ride one-handed and to train Indy to respond to a totally different feel on her bit. I had to learn to balance with the weight of a bird on one fist. This was easy enough while stationary or at a sedate walk, but pick up the pace and things started to fall apart, or rather I started to feel like I might fall off. Now I was the weakest link, and very ashamed of my inadequacy. Help was required and I have to thank my patient husband ? not only did he listen to my hare-brained schemes, he also helped me put them into action. For days he lunged the three of us until I could maintain my balance and feel like I was a worthy member of our team.

We must have made a rather comic sight. A baffled bird of prey perched on the fist of a wobbly woman seated on a bored horse. I?m sure I heard a few derisive chuckles from behind hedges. Undeterred, we ploughed on and, after a while (I refuse to embarrass myself by saying how long), I felt confident that we were ready to set off into the outside world. We even popped over a few small jumps just to prove our prowess. We were almost ready for the field.

During our training it had become rapidly apparent that Indy?s tack was going to require some adjustments to accommodate the extra passenger, and my hawking gear was going to need changing to take into account the fact that I was mounted. To Indy I added a neck strap to give me something to grab hold of as well as her mane, in case I lost my balance, a knot in her reins to enable me to ride one-handed and some leather straps were attached to the saddle, to which could be attached leash, jess, swivel and so on.

My beloved, if battered, hawking bag had to be exchanged for an uncomfortable new waistcoat, which had convenient pockets in which to stuff strips of beef for Ned, a hoof-pick for Indy and chocolate bars for me. All that was left to complete the picture was a saddlebag in which to put our kills. I?d clearly been in an optimistic frame of mind when I ordered it, for it was dauntingly large, capable of carrying several crows and still leave room for a couple of rabbits and a hare.

So with horse and hawk fit and ready for the field, equipment in order and young crows and magpies flapping all over the place, I had no excuse to delay. We were off into the big wide world. And whether we caught 10 crows or none, I knew that I would always be proud of the team I?d created and of the two animals that were my hunting companions.

Part 2

Hawking on horseback

The wind was right, the horse was fit and the hawk at his flying weight. At 1lb 6oz his reactions were sharp, his response to the call immediate and his energy levels high enough to face a morning?s hunting. If anyone was going to let the team down, it was going to be me.

I am fortunate enough to live close to a large tract of common land. Riddled with rabbits and not too popular with walkers, it was the perfect place for this novice band of hunters to try their luck. Making the most of nature?s bounty meant being in position when the rabbits were likely to be out and about: early morning or late afternoon.

Being an early riser I chose the first option, and regretted it as soon as the alarm clock sounded. A hastily gulped mug of coffee en route to the stable restored my enthusiasm for the day and on hearing Indy?s soft whinny and the jangle of Ned?s bells, I began to feel extremely excited. Even the knowledge that both would rather have been greeted by their breakfast didn?t dent my growing sense of anticipation. We were going hunting, my horse, my hawk and I. It was a dream fulfilled ? well, almost. We had to catch something first. So with the horse tacked up and the hunting team equipped with everything we would need for the day, I finally attached the gamebag to Indy?s saddle, picked up Ned, mounted and set off down the road on our expedition.

I couldn?t help feeling proud of my companions and wishing we had a slightly more appreciative audience than the motley band of songbirds that marked our progress with alarm calls and the odd daring attack on the baffled bird on my fist. But it was a beautiful morning to be out and I was thrilled to have stolen a march on the start of the day. The crispness of the air combined with the soft, earthy smell of autumn made it feel jolly good just to be alive.

Clearly Indy felt the same, for the moment we turned off the lane and on to the common, she pricked her ears and strode out eagerly. We were all on the alert. Light was filtering through the clouds and we could chance upon a rabbit at any moment. Within minutes we would be nearing their prime grazing ground. A low, broad bank covered with clumps of gorse and blackthorn sheltered a broad strip of grass which rabbits seemed to find irresistible.

It also provided cover for our approach. There is a limit to how stealthy one can be when mounted on horseback and carrying a hawk, so we needed all the help we could get. I?d done my best to minimise the noise ? Indy?s feet were trimmed but not shod. There is little need for metal shoes when most of our outings are over mountain and moorland, and it certainly allowed her to tread more softly. I?d also removed Ned?s leg bell, knowing that the merest metallic tinkle would send any sensible rabbit fleeing for cover long before we were near enough for a successful flight.

I was too much of a coward to remove his tail bell as well. If he were to make a kill in cover or out of sight, he could so easily be lost. All I could hope for was that he would stay as still as possible as we neared the brow of the ridge. His leash, swivel and mews jesses had been removed before we reached the common, leaving only his field jesses attached to his anklets. These narrow strips of leather were long enough to hold securely in my fist but not to hamper him in flight, and they were free from any holes that might get tangled on fences or branches.

We approached as slowly as it was possible to do on a young, fit horse. I held Ned across my body to disguise his outline. The local rabbit population was pretty tolerant of horses and riders but a hawk in their midst was another matter.

From a hundred yards away I could make out the shadowy outlines of countless rabbits. A few yards closer and one or two began to pay attention. We stopped to let these wary watchers relax again. All the long and boring hours spent training Indy to stand still on command at last paid off. I could only hope that Ned would not be too ambitious and attempt too long a flight. I could hold him back, but the commotion of a bating bird of prey would ruin all chance of a kill, for that day at least.

Every step closer increased our chance of success but it also made our quarry ever more apprehensive. At 40 yards I eased my grip on Ned?s jesses. It was up to him now. His whole shape had changed. His feathers lay tight against his body, everything was sharper, ready for action. One movement from one rabbit would be all it would take. And we didn?t have to wait long. A startled stamp by one unfortunate rabbit who clearly, and correctly, thought we were a little too close for comfort sent Ned swiftly on his way.

It was not swiftly enough. Watching a rabbit twist and turn at full speed is an awe-inspiring sight and this one was certainly a master of the art. Despite Ned?s persistence in pursuing the white scut, it disappeared from sight down a hole before he was close enough to strike. It was disappointing but he is a young bird with little experience and, besides, the day had barely begun. We had a few more tricks to try.

All the rabbits in the area had sensibly headed for cover. New ground was called for and having a horse to ride made getting there much quicker. Twenty minutes of brisk trotting brought us to a hedgerow. Among the hawthorns, which were dripping with red berries, was the occasional gnarled oak, perfect spying posts for Ned. With the extra height to help him he stood a better chance. Putting him up in a tree meant giving my arm a much needed break, and made eating my belated breakfast of a chocolate bar easier.

And so we proceeded. Indy and I went on the downwind side of the hedge, Ned followed us from tree to tree, scanning for movement as he went. Here the ground was much higher and more exposed and there were fewer rabbits to be found. It was 20 minutes before we saw any action, but it was worth waiting for, for the hawk at least. He had barely landed above our head before he was off again using the branch as a springboard for his attack. Thirty yards away sat the unfortunate rabbit. Though clearly aware that danger threatened, by the time it saw the approaching hawk, it was too late.

In a matter of seconds, though it felt much longer, it was over. While the rabbit made a valiant attempt at escape, jinking through the dying bracken fronds, Ned was in command of the situation from the start. The height of the oak tree had allowed him to power towards his prey with a force and ferocity that was breathtaking. Within seconds he had the rabbit grasped firmly by the shoulders. Grateful once again that Indy could be trusted to stay standing even while her rider was crashing through a thorn hedge, I made in to despatch the rabbit and allow Ned to feed up on the head of his catch ? I wanted the rest for dinner. It was the first rabbit he had ever caught and the first I had ever taken from horseback, and I felt that we both deserved a reward.

It was as conquering heroes that we returned home. Admittedly we?d secured only a small victory. In medieval times men and women were always cavorting around the countryside flying falcons and hawks from horseback with more skill and probably better results than we would ever attain. But that didn?t matter. This horse, this hawk and this human had all worked together. And we had caught a rabbit.