This year Ireland hosted the International Association of Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey (IAF) Annual Council of Delegates meeting. The Irish Hawking Club was more than delighted to host the 47th Annual Council of Delegates meeting, the first of its kind on our humble isle. In this article, I hope to introduce more environmentalists and zoologists to the concept of falconry in order to encourage constructive dialogue between falconers and researchers. I will briefly introduce the art, our heritage, hunting with raptors and finish with a short synopsis of Ireland’s first conference on the topic of falconry.
Introduction to Falconry
“Falconry” or “hawking” can be defined as the art and sport of hunting in a natural state with a trained bird of prey. Since 2010, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has recognised falconry as a part of the intangible heritage of mankind. Falconry was added to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity, alongside, for example, traditional wood-crafting in Madagascar and Vanuatu sand drawings. Intangible cultural heritage includes, in the words of UNESCO, “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” The IAF is an NGO, founded in 1968 with the express purpose of preserving the sport of falconry and the conservation of the wild raptors that so long ago inspired the first falconer to take up a gauntlet and train his own hunting partner. It represents 110 falconry and raptor organisations in 80 countries.
In Ireland, remains of Goshawks have been found in Mount Sandel, Coleraine (c.7000 BC) and Dalkey Island, Dublin and Newgrange in the Boyne Valley (c. 3000 BC). It is still unclear if these Goshawks were used for falconry or used for religious reasons. The Irish text Betha Colman Maic Luachain (The Life of St Colman Maic Luachain) gives the earliest definitive evidence for falconry being practised in Ireland. This text was written in the 7th Century and the book describes the King of Tara as having ‘da seabhac selga,’ or two hunting hawks. By the 12th Century, the Normans had fully established themselves and the sport of falconry in the country. However, falconry was practiced only by nobility during this time, adding to falconry’s title as the “sport to kings.” For instance, in the Cistercian Abbey at Knockmoy, Co. Galway (founded in 1189AD) there is a fresco that dates to 1400AD. The fresco depicts three kings with hawks on their fists.
In modern Ireland, the most popular species for falconry are the Goshawk, Peregrine, Sparrowhawk and the non-native Harris’s Hawk. However, Irish falconry is most well-known for its sparrowhawking and snipe hawking. The Sparrowhawk was an extremely popular raptor to fly in Ireland during the 1980s-1990s, with full field-meetings dedicated to Sparviters (those who fly Sparrowhawks exclusively). Today, however, snipe hawking is what puts Ireland on the map when it comes to falconry. This form of falconry has increased in popularity despite its reputation as a difficult, highly technical falconry. Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) are the preferred quarry for snipe hawkers, although Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus) may also be taken. In Ireland, snipe hawking is often carried out with tiercel (male) Peregrines.
Hawking Across Ireland
The first stage of this week-long meeting and conference started off in beautiful South-West of Ireland in Sneem, County Kerry. Field Meets were held each day, with the choice of hunting a wide variety of game with a number of raptor species. On my first day out hawking, I went snipe hawking with internationally renowned snipe hawkers on a beautiful bog in the midst of Kerry’s rugged mountainous landscape. Seven falcons were flown that day and many snipe were flushed by the hard-working pointers, but no snipe were caught. Snipe are a formidable quarry species, their jinking flight and dramatic speed makes them a difficult game species once thought impossible to hunt with a raptor.
The day after, I travelled to Co. Cork with an international assortment of austringers (falconers who fly goshawks) to hunt pheasants in a farmed countryside with many hedgerows and tufts of native trees. Despite flights from five goshawks only one pheasant was caught, by a young passage goshawk and her German falconer. Wild goshawks have been found to have a relatively higher success rate (16 – 33%) when hunting (Toland 1986; Rutz, 2006) compared to other raptors and our hunt out in the field gets me thinking about this. On the way back to Sneem I consider the kill-rate of a shooting party out hunting pheasants on the same land and think of the impact my sport had on these birds and on other wildlife. Is the success rate of shooters on pheasants higher or lower than 16 – 33%? How much disturbance and damage did our hawks create compared to a group out shooting? As we drive I remember the bat and bird boxes we spotted across the fields we hunted, the wild birds in the hedges, the kestrel hovering in the distance, the woodcock we put up while the dogs searched for pheasants – I greatly enjoyed being out in nature that day.
The final day in Sneem I went out with one sparviter and his Sparrowhawk, still an Accipiter, but hunting in a completely different way to the larger Goshawk. Today we weren’t aiming for large game like pheasants, but instead a more natural prey for this 270g killing machine – the European blackbird. The fastest and most manoeuvrable of the sparrowhawk’s natural quarry, it is the most evenly matched prey and thus produces challenging and dynamic flights for the falconer to have the honour to witness. We walked along many unbroken hedgerows in search of these impressive flights and were not disappointed! However, despite the best efforts of the hawk, it did not catch the prey. A testament to the natural arms race between predator and prey.
There was a gathering of falconers in traditional hunting garb and a fabulous Gala Dinner to celebrate ‘World Falconry Day’ on the evening of Wednesday November 16th to end our hawking in Kerry. The next day we were on the move.
Ireland’s First Falconry Conference
The second stage of the Falconry Meet took us to the Midlands between Thursday 17th November and Sunday 20th November. A conference on ‘The Stewardship of Biodiversity and Sustainable Use’ was held here, in Moyvalley. With speakers from all over the world and a crowd of falconers, NPWS rangers, raptor biologists and interested parties, this conference was set to be just as enthralling as the hawking!
Among the most esteemed speakers were Prof Tom Cade (founding chairman and director of the Peregrine Fund, attributed with saving the Peregrine from extinction) and Prof Robert Kenward (chair of the IUCN’s thematic group for sustainable use and management of ecosystems). The presentations centred on the topic of sustainable use of wild raptors for falconry, touching on the wild take in a number of countries, the recovery of the Peregrine and conservation through sustainable use. We also had speakers from the Irish Grey Partridge Conservation Trust and the Irish Red Grouse Conservation Trust.
Falconers are a small proportion of the hunting community, but are often considered an “elite” sector of the community (Fox, 1995; Kenward, 2009). A survey in the U.S. showed that 83% of falconers had tertiary education, compared to 47% for other hunters (Peyton et al., 1995). Falconers spent twice as much time on their hunting sport as other types of hunter, such as shooters (Peyton et al., 1995). U.S. falconers also demonstrated high engagement as volunteers in rehabilitation of wild raptors (57%), conservation education projects (47%) and raptor reintroduction work (35%) (Peyton et al., 1995). Similar engagement in Europe was identified by delegates to the European Commission of national authorities responsible for the Wild Birds Directive (Kenward, 2009). From 15 states where falconry is a legal activity, it was found that almost all recorded falconers’ engage in some aspect of raptor or game conservation (Kenward, 2009; Kenward and Gage, 2009).
This week spent with international falconers and raptor researchers has reminded me of the part we all play in the conservation of the wild populations of raptors and in the conservation of their prey species. As falconers, we want to support the wild population of raptors for future generations of falconers and to maintain the balance of nature that we catch a glimpse of every day we hunt. We admire and respect our quarry species for their ability to outwit our hawks and provide a challenging, dynamic flight. As a raptor researcher and zoologist, I want to maintain these populations, their habitats and the greater ecosystem in a way that is sustainable and realistic. As I see both sides, it encourages me to speak openly about my sport with those around me in the sphere of biology and environmentalism. If we wish to continue to support and conserve these populations of top predators and their prey, we need to work together and accept the perspectives from which both sides speak.
Fox, N., 1995. Understanding the bird of prey. Hancock House.
Kenward, R. E. and Gage, M. J. G., 2009. Opportunities in falconry for conservation through sustainable use. In Sielicki, J. and Mizera, T., 2009. Peregrine Falcon Populations – status and perspectives on the 21st Century. University of Life Sciences Press, Warsaw, Poznañ. Pp. 593-616.
Kenward, R. E., 2009. Conservation Values from Falconry. In Dickson, B., Hutton, J., Adams, B., 2009. Recreational Hunting, Conservation and Rural Livelihoods: Science and Practice, Blackwell Publishing. Pp. 181-196.
Peyton, R.B., Vorro, J., Grise, L., Tobin, R. & Eberhardt, R., 1995. A profile of falconers in the United States: falconry practises, attitudes and conservation behaviours. Transactions of the 60th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. 181–192.
Rutz, C., 2006. Home range size, habitat use, activity patterns and hunting behaviour of urban-breeding Northern Goshawks Accipiter gentilis. Ardea. 94: 185–202.
Toland, B., 1986. Hunting success of some Missouri raptors. Wilson Bulletin. 98: 116-125.