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Birds of prey that get Martin the falconer's pulses racing

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 19, 2012

  • Falconer Martin Whitley with his golden eagle, which will take foxes and is used on outings with the South Devon Hunt. Above right, the deadly Harris Hawk PICTURES STEVE HAYWOOD

  • Falconer Martin Whitley's collection of hoods, worn by the birds

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When the start of the hunting season is mentioned people imagine horses, hounds or groups with shotguns. The sight of a lone figure with his proud and haughty bird of prey spectacularly dispatching their quarry is somehow primeval and some would argue a fairer fight.

For falconer Martin Whitley this is a time of year that really gets his heart racing. Hunting with birds is his passion and his enthusiasm for the job is infectious.

Born into a family of country people – his great great uncle was the founder of Paignton Zoo; his great grandfather founded the South Devon Hunt and his great uncle Claude was one of the longest serving (47 years) master of foxhounds – Martin has hunted all of his life in one form or other, which has included being a whipper-in as well as a master of two packs of beagles.

"I do real sports now," he quips and for the last 20 years he has flown birds.

"My late first wife sent me on a day's hunting with Harris Hawks and I just loved it," said Martin who went on to fly birds for a hobby, but after his wife died he decided to try and make a living out of it.

He started his business – Dartmoor Hawking – 12 years ago and for the past eight years has had a contract with Bovey Castle on Dartmoor to do daily displays for the hotel's clients.

Fifty percent of Martin's work is display, which "helps to pay the bills" he says.

So after a summer of handling sessions and displays when the hawks, falcons, eagles and owls all get fat and fed-up, now is the time when some serious fitness work takes place for his 12 hunting birds, and Martin is able to get his full falconry fix.

"This is my passion in life," he says. "This time of year, when I'm not out doing hunting sessions with clients, I go out hunting on my own, it's what I love."

On getting his birds fit, Martin describes it "a bit like training racehorses" – "you really prime them for the day they are flying."

His birds, all housed in one big barn along with the ferrets and Martin's hawking horse, Dotty, go on a high protein diet (quail is top of the menu) and a serious exercise regime. "My display birds get a couple of flights a day while the hunting birds have a much harder regime with sprint work – I'll exercise one, give it 10 minutes for a breather, then take it out again – which is probably much harder than it would be in the wild."

Not surprisingly, he spends up to seven hours a day flying all 18 of his birds.

He explains how they need to be fit to be confident. "Like all predators, if they fail they are going to give up and go for an easier option, so from the outset they've got to think they can do it."

Five Harris Hawks feature largely in his hunting days with clients.

"They are very simple, social, straightforward birds which catch rabbits," he explains, "although they are not particularly fast".

His eyes light up when he talks about the birds that really rock his boat – hunting falcons, fast, furious and spectacular. He waxes lyrically as he describes their work. "Watching a falcon hunting is like witnessing an aerial dogfight. They are the fastest creatures on the planet with lightning fast reflexes and manoeuvrability as well as courage and determination that has to be seen to be believed.

"Once they decide on a quarry there is little that will stop them. They will take prey far larger than themselves and physically much stronger, pursuing the chase unto death – sometimes their own."

Martin explains how the most successful kills rely on the initial strike: "The bird of prey uses its momentum, generated from a high speed flight, which can be up to 200mph in the case of a falcon, to disable and disorientate its victim."

He adds: "Imagine you are the falcon, it's like driving a sports car into juggernaut. Sometimes they take on something a bit too big but they still don't give up, hanging on through thick cover or even water. It's not unusual for a hunting bird to be drowned hanging on to a large water foul that dives underwater in order to shake off its aggressor."

Another "serious" bird of Martin's is his golden eagle who enters her second proper season hunting.

"She is a stunning bird," he says proudly as she greets him with an intense shrill, eager for her next flight.

"We occasionally help the local hunt out but she is used mainly for my hunting sessions, with clients or just me and the two dogs out on Dartmoor."

She'll take rabbits, hares, foxes and even deer, notes Martin. "I was out flying her in the valley. She must have been 500 foot up and I suddenly saw her swoop down at full speed. She hit it so hard it was killed on impact immediately – that's the result of a 10llb weight hitting an object at 90mph, it's a lot of force and very quick."

One of Martin's most senior birds – an 11-year-old Harris Hawk – has taken over 1,000 rabbits in his career as well as 200 pheasants and a peacock. "We won't go into that one," smiles Martin who noted that the bird is also banned from Bovey Castle, which has chickens... which moves on to Martin telling me about how hard it is to define a relationship in falconry.

"Basically the birds are working for themselves. I can just adapt that to what they want to do in conjunction with me as well.

"I've done hounds and essentially you have a domestic animal working with you, whereas a bird is completely different. Anyone taking up the sport has to realise you will never have the same relationship you would with a dog – master / servant – with a hawk you have no domination at all, at best it is an equal partnership. Do anything to upset them and they will just go."

Bouncing with enthusiasm before a flight are Martin's two dogs – Daniel the spaniel and Boris, a "mongrel shaggy pointer".

Likewise, the hawk will read the dog's body language and can tell when Danny is on a scent.

"I'm the limiting factor really," says Martin. "I'm a low perch and the bird can do much better from a tree; secondly he can't guarantee that I'll let him go at the right time. On his own he can get himself in the best position, so can read what is happening, so he and the dog will always try and sneak off together if they can – I'm basically just a glorified taxi driver as far as those two are concerned!"

Martin has started four new young birds this season, and with great excitement, he thinks he's found his best hunting bird ever. "It's a cross between a Gyr falcon and a Peregrine falcon. If I had to write a text book on how to train and enter a bird it would be on this one. He's been unbelievably straightforward and his flights are mind blowing. He's already taken 30 crows this year. He is fast, manoeuvrable and just doesn't give up."

Whether you are a hardened twitcher or a first-time falconer, a day out hunting with Martin will not disappoint.

"I've had people come out who are a bit sceptical beforehand – they are afraid they might see something die and it might a bit nasty, but you wait and watch – part way through a flight they are cheering that falcon on like you wouldn't believe. You have to see it to understand it. This day and age quite a few think that if you are hunting something you are blood thirsty, but if you see one of these falcons doing what it can do, it's just the most amazing thing you will ever see."

His enthusiasm reaches boiling point: "You are watching a bird flight that engineers go back to studying every time they design a new jet fighter because we haven't made anything that can do what this bird can do and when it is pulling all its turns, and all it punches, and the full speed when its going, it is jaw dropping stuff."

From an amateur's point of view, it's really just the most amazing form of bird watching.

To find out more about falconry you can visit Martin's website www.dartmoorhawking.co.uk

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