Falconry - a winged assassin

Falconers Steve and Emma Ford re-enact a scene played out through time immemorial.

From 700 feet a feather bullet flips on its back to plummet onto a bank of purple heather below. The grouse probably didn't even realise what was happening as a gyrfalcon, the fastest longwing in the world, sits bound to its prey.

?The perfect kill!? exclaims Steve Ford who, alongside his wife Emma, runs the British Falconry School at Gleneagles, which they established in 1982. Today, they are hunting on the Bowhill Estate in the Scottish Borders.

Regarded as the pinnacle of falconry; hunting red grouse with falcons over pointers is a skill fewer than 50 people in the UK possess today, although interest in the sport is as keen as ever.

The falcon gathers its wings to cloak the dead bird as his furious eye reverses over it staring - fixed on the gauntleted hand coming forward.

It's a scene that has played out over the centuries. One that involves the consummate skill of a falconer, their bird, and the dogs that are used to point the prey. The elements must all be played out in the correct measure for success. The falcon must have the wind blowing up the face of the hill, the dog must point but not flush the grouse from cover, while Steve maintains direction of the pointers with short sharp blasts of his whistle from 100 yards away. The couple are also accompanied by labradors for picking-up, if necessary.

Often the grouse escape. A falcon has not the speed, in level flight, to catch a healthy grouse. It might encounter diversionary tactics, and the prey will scatter to the four corners of the moor. The wind direction favours the falcon today - its trained talons grip fast.

Pulling an eyeball-wrenching 25 times its own bodyweight coming out of a stoop, the spiraled nostrils of this natural born killer prevent the falcon passing out from the incurring wind rush.

Food is the principle reason for a peregrine falcon flying in the wild: ?Fat birds don't fly,? remarks Steve. The couple are meticulous in honing the falcon's flying weight, at which it will be ready to hunt. Too much weight and the bird won't have the appetite for hunting, but too little body-fat and it won't have the strength to take a grouse. It's a challenge they are dedicated to, spending hours a day at their Gleneagles base keeping the birds in perfect condition.

Despite being an ancient sport, today's falconers fit tracking devices to their birds. Steve and Emma recall tramping many a moorland mile to retrieve errant or inexperienced birds. One trip involved 20 miles of catch-up down the Etterick valley to Galashiels town centre and one young falcon perched on a satellite dish! Steve provided unexpected entertainment for the locals as he swung a successful lure to the bird on Bank Street.

But the very spirit of falconry is as old as the hills the couple are working over and a challenge they love. ?The challenge of pitting your skills through another animal exceeds anything I've known in other fieldsports,? Emma says.

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