First Published in the Austringer 1995.
& The Falconers & Raptor Conservation Magazine Issue 41.
High in the clear blue sky the continuing melodic song of the ascending skylark seemed to typify summer. Jack Fraser watched the lark out of one eye as he drank orange juice from a bottle, he lay down on the bank side resting for a minute from his labours scything the long grass.
Resting his head in the new cut grass he listened to the sounds around him, bees busied themselves in and out of the many wildflowers, and at his feet he heard a rustle, then the tell tale high pitched squeak of a shrew. A cock chaffinch chwink, chwink, chwinking its metallic call seemed to be competing with the chiff chaff some where in the thorn hedge at the top of the bank, and all around the air was perfumed with the smell of new mown hay.
The sound of a twig cracking indicated the presence of a boy he had seen earlier, walking alongside the bottom hedge of the fourteen acre wheat field, had now made his way up to the farm roadside.
Without looking up Jack greeted the boys arrival, “lovely day to be walking the fields young’un” said Jack startling the boy.
The boy had not seen Jack laid in the grass, and almost fell off the gate he was climbing over in an attempt to see where the unexpected greeting had come from.
Jack climbed to his feet and walked over to the boy, “look lad if you must climb over wooden gates, climb over at the hinge end, you’ll put less strain on the post, and me as I has to fix em”. “Anyhow's where's you come from lad, I ‘ve not seen you on this farm land before” quizzed Jack.
“Yes sir I’ll remember that, I come from Orchid Fields in the village” said the boy looking up at Jack.
“Orchid Fields ?, oh you mean those new houses” said Jack remembering some building work going on in the old orchid the last time his was in the village.
“New houses ?” exclaimed the boy, “ I moved there when I was eight and I’m fourteen now.”
“Well let me welcome you boy, I’m Jack Fraser, I looks after all the hedges and bank sides and all the game birds on these farms here about's” said Jack offering the boy his hand to shake.
“I’m Gary, Sir, Gary Jennings” said the boy offering his small hand into the grasp of the hard weather beaten grip.
“Well Gary, we will have less of the Sir, most call me Jack and some calls me Hawk”., he said tucking the back of the shirt into his waist belt.
Jack walked back to where he had left off work and continued scything grass.
“Why Hawk ?” , inquired Gary.
Well one reason some calls me Hawk is on account that I sees everything, just like a hawk” replied Jack with a wink.
Gary laid down in the grass whilst Jack continued rhythmically scything the bank side, the suns rays were warming as they bathed his body. Turning over to lie on his stomach he plucked a seed head of grass and chewed the fleshy stem between his teeth. He was gazing out across the fourteen acre wheat field when suddenly a dark silhouette of a bird swooped out of the deep blue sky in a large arc, the bird levelled out at about twenty feet and heading on fixed wings approached towards them at speed.
“Look at that hawk”, screamed Gary, “Its coming this way Jack” he exclaimed pointing at the bird.
Jack carried on scything, Gary had not taken his eyes of the hawk and was astounded as it kept approaching. “Jack,Jack” he kept saying as the hawk swept straight over his head, turned into the gentle breeze and landed on the gatepost.
“Back are you ‘Odin’, did you find a nice cool breeze high up there old lad?” inquired Jack of the tiercel peregrine, who was now leaning forward on the gatepost as Jack approached him.
“You gave my young friend here a bit of a turn, Odin”, Jack placed his hand against the peregrines breast and it stepped up onto it. Moving his arm towards Gary he brought the tiercel closer to the boy.
“Gary this is Odin, say hello to him”, said Jack as the tiercel looked Gary straight in the eye.
“GOSH” gasped Gary, “He's magnificent where did he come from, is he yours”.
“The sky”, replied Jack. “ Odin’s a sky god, he lives in the sky, when he's not spending time with me” said Jack placing the peregrine back on the post.
“We’ll leave him to have a rest now, he's been up for hours” explained Jack returning to work.
Gary sat down in the grass and watched the tiercel intently, he was fascinated as it stretched up its neck to preen its throat and chest feathers, then fluffing all its body feathers, roused itself in a great shake. Clenching one foot, it stretched out a leg forwards, shook the leg a little, then withdrew both the leg and the clenched foot into its body feathers.
Jack kept an eye on the boy as he worked, he could see how mesmerised he was with the tiercel’s presence, when he stopped working to take another drink from the squash bottle he was bombarded with questions. He found Gary’s enthusiasm infectious and found himself telling stories and re-enacting flights to the lad that he probably had never mentioned to anyone before. Jack had been a solitary falconer most of his life, living and working mostly alone he had the opportunity to take a hawk or falcon with him and fly it during his work breaks. He had been hawking since he was a boy, younger than Gary, now it was just instinctive part of his life and he really had to think hard before answering some of the questions Gary was throwing at him. Jack was a little unorthodox in his methods of hunting, especially with his longwings like “Odin”, in a way he kept them on an extended hack. He hacked all the falcons he trained, but it was a daytime hack as opposed to full time. As he worked in the fields most days he could take an eyas with him and sit it on a hedge post whilst he worked, the eyas would soon be exploring the field, flying from post to post, and then into the trees, soon it would be flying up on the thermals. Jack would feed the eyas in the mid afternoon by calling it to a weighted lure lying on the ground, the eyas would feed whilst Jack continued to work. Then he would gather it onto his fist and return home, the eyas would retire to sit on the back of a high backed chair in his living room and sleep until morning.
The following day Jack and the eyas would repeat the performance until finally one day the eyas would return with a full crop. Jack would carry on with these free flight periods, but now using his collie dog to point partridges, the eyas learned that it was more profitable to hunt with Jack and the dog. The falcons would wait around until late morning when Jack felt it was time to look for a covey. He never had to look far as he knew where most of the coveys were, he always knew where they nested and lifted their eggs to place under broody bantams, he then released the reared youngsters and watched their progress.
It was the school summer holidays for Gary and he spent every day thereafter with Jack and “Odin”, Gary became totally hooked as “Odin” demonstrated his immense skill on both partridge and wild pheasants. The tiercel’s experience had been hard learnt, and he made hunting look easy, Jack would explain to Gary that it had taken a long time for the tiercel to learn that by hitting a wild pheasant precisely in the head he was thus able to dispatch even and old cock pheasant in the air. Many falcons don’t learn this skill let alone tiercels and many a pheasant recovers from a body hit even from the heaviest falcons.
Jack was a true countryman and his knowledge of the ways of the countryside, its flora and fauna was learnt over a lifetimes observation. It was his intermit knowledge of the particular land over which he had worked for most of his life that was a special advantage to his success at putting quarry up for his falcons or hawks.
Jack new where virtually every bird and mammal lived and breathed on all the farms. He paid a keen interest in the comings and goings of every roe deer, fox, badger, hare, rabbit, pheasant , duck and partridge. The pheasants, duck and partridge were his special concern and he helped their continued production where and when ever he could. Working the hedges, banks and ditches as he did he found many if not all their nests, where he would lift half if not all of the clutch of eggs to artificially incubate or place under any available broody bantam or hen.
The eggs he left usually had a higher success rate of survival, and the ones he reared were all released back on the individual farms . The other species, the deer, fox, hare and rabbits had to have their numbers controlled together with the corvid population, and the farmers expected Jack to see to it. The badgers were on the whole Jacks secret, all the farmers knew there were badgers but no one knew where they all were except Jack. He would lay for hours face down on a plank of wood, secured about six feet up in a tree at dusk awaiting the emergence of the sow and her cubs from a sett. Here he would spend many an enjoyable hour or two on moonlit nights watching the young cubs gambolling about.
As late summer arrived, Gary was as ever keen and Jack had decided to take on an eyas goshawk to train. The rabbit population was exploding and Jack much preferred a natural method of control as he called hawking or falconry, he had decided that if Gary’s enthusiasm continued it would be valuable experience for him to participate in the training of a young gos. This was unbeknown to Gary who’s first encounter with a gos was one Saturday morning in late July, when he strolled up the garden path of Jack’s farm stead to find Jack sitting on the back doorstep with a huge female gos feeding on his gloved fist. The gos stopped feeding as soon as Gary appeared and Jack indicated to Gary to sit where he was and to keep as quite and still as he could. Soon the gos was feeding again but every mouthful was punctuated with a cold stare at Gary.
The gos, a Finnish female had arrived the previous evening. She had just been caught up from her breeding chamber, and the breeder had delivered her, on account that Jack had no transport. He had jessed her on arrival and sat up all night with her on the fist, although this was an old outdated method of manning a short wing, he was a slow one to change. As he sat on the doorstep in the early morning sun with the gos feeding, “Mungo” Jack’s collie dog sat beside him with his head laid over his right knee. Already the gos paid little attention to the dog and Jack pointed out to Gary that this happy state of affairs was partly due to the dog being constantly present since the moment the gos emerged from the travelling box.
She was a large powerful hawk in feather perfect plumage, with a deep chest, wide head, strong beak and large sturdy legs with wide spanning feet armed with the most ferocious talons Gary had ever seen.
“Take a good long look at her now Gary, she’s in brand spanking new condition, hopefully we will keep her that way” explained Jack, and went on with tales of the methods of young goshawks daredevil attitude to hunting, giving little regard to their own safety in their determined pursuit of quarry.
As they entered the living room, Gary noticed that in the opposite corner to where “Odin was sitting on the high backed chair, a mobile screen perch had been erected. The floor and walls were covered with opened paper feed sacks, these were to protect the furnishings from the splicing mutes of the hawk.
Once the gos had finished feeding Jack placed her on the perch and tied her swivel tight to the perch with a special knot in the leash. This was then tucked in between the two layers of hessian screen, in there it would be well out of the way should she bate and climb back to her perch.
Jack then presented Gary with a double thickness gos glove he had made especially to fit Gary’s small hand. Excitedly Gary tried it on, a perfect fit. He was now instructed to carry “Odin” around the farm for practise, Gary never questioned an instruction, but could not see the point. When he returned after an hours walk his hand ached, and Jack explained that although the buckskin glove was soft, the two layers of leather needed to protect your hand from the powerful grip of a gos, was a handful when gripped in the fist for hours on end. This exercise was to get Gary’s hand strengthened and to mould the glove to shape, not until Jack felt sure Gary was ready would he allow him to help manning the gos.
Such a big powerful hawk needed a powerful grip, Jack made a small hessian sack and filled it with three pounds of corn, to this he fitted two leather straps and instructed Gary to carry this about on the gloved fist for hours on end.
Gary felt a right twit and hoped no one would see him, Jack was very strict with him, and insisted that he kept his arm and fist straight at all times. “You must learn instinctively to kept your fist as level and as still as you can, the hawks ride on your fist must be as comfortable as possible. Otherwise it won’t want to return to a bone shaker ride on the fist from a nice gentle swaying tree perch”, instructed Jack.
“Think of it like this, remember when I showed you when “Odin” fixed his gaze on something in the distance, and how if I moved my fist about his head stayed locked in space even though his body was moving with the fist!”. “Well that is how your arm must become, as you walk over rough, undulating ground, your fist must stay locked in place. Your body becomes a suspension unit, soaking up all the bumps and jolts, even if you fall flat on you face in the mud I don’t want to see the hawk even flick its wings”, Gary looked at Jack and he detected a slight glint in the eye.
He carried that sack of corn about for days, every now and then when Gary was least expecting it Jack would grab the sack and give it a hell of a yank. If the straps slipped through Gary's fingers Jack would bark “HAWK LOST”.
At first this disheartened Gary as he was caught out every time but he was determined to beat Jack at this latest game, and soon it was a rare chance if Jack snatched the sack he was able to pull the jesses from his grip.
At last the day came, Jack introduced Gary to “Oulu” as he had named the gos. Jack explained that “Oulu” means water in Finnish, and he hoped that by naming her so might be a good omen and she would turn out a good duck hawk. Gary asked why he had called the tiercel Odin.
Jack explained that although the tiercel was now a perfect gentleman in his younger days he would get very angry if he hit game and it got away on him, and would return to the fist in a real paddy. So he had named him Odin after the mythical Norse god which means fury. “Mungo” the collie, well it was an old Scottish word for amiable, he’s such a soft old mutt, what else could I call him.
“Well lad, what are you waiting for?’, pick her up on your fist”. “I want you to walk her down the farm road as far as Lofthouse Farm and back again”. “Then when you get back tie her to the bowperch on the grass by the back door, I’ll get her a fresh bath of water, with luck she’ll bathe today”, ordered Jack.
Gary was impressed by the sheer presence of the gos so close, she bated once as he left the drive and turned onto the farm road, the explosive force was more violent than he had expected and as she returned to the fist he well understood why Jack had put him through the gruelling exercises of the past week. As she stood on the fist glaring around her beak was level with Gary’s eyes, as she panted gently the pungent smell of her breath filled his nostrils.
Later that day Jack said they would try and see if “Oulu” would jump to the fist outside, she had been coming well indoors, and Jack wanted Gary and Mungo present, so as to add to the distractions.
Jack removed her swivel and tied the creance to her jesses, he then carried her to an old post in the middle of the paddock. She jumped onto the post, the creance was about twenty yards long and the other end was tied to an old three pound retrieving canvas dummy, Jack dropped this on the ground. He explained to Gary that if “Oulu” flew off, she would drag the dummy a little way along the ground before it slowly but gently forced her to land. Much better than if the creance was tied to a peg hammered into the ground which would pull her up sharp putting undue strain on her legs. He stepped back from the post about three yards and offering his fist garnished with a rabbit hind leg he let out a high pitched whistle “Oulu” hesitated for a moment and Jack whipped his fist behind his back and out of her sight. He stood still for about thirty seconds, “Oulu” glared at him, then quick as a flash he again held high his fist and whistled, this time “Oulu” was on the fist instantly. Jack cooed to her as she fed and then repeated the same whistle every minute or so, he sat down on the grass with “Mungo “ and called Gary closer.
“Why did you take your fist away like that, I thought she was going to come to you” inquired Gary.
“She probably would have, but I’m not going to teach her that that if she hangs about the food will always be on offer”. “You see, in the wild a goshawk learns that by making a instant decision on seeing prey to attack it is more often successful”. “The same way the instance it sees the fist it must come, or else its gone”. All the while as Jack explained he let out the same high pitched whistle as the gos fed.
“Why keep whistling now she’s on the fist”, asked Gary. “Are well that's called food association, you see “Oulu” will learn the only time she hears that whistle is when she is on the fist feeding, later on when we are flying her, that whistle means one thing, FOOD and she should return to the sound even if she is out of sight of us”, said Jack crossing his fingers and winking to Gary.
“I thought you would fly her further”, stated Gary. “She might well have come a bit further, but as this was her first time outside I didn't want to make it to daunting for her”.
“Also you see I am letting her have the whole leg as a reward, there is no point offering a large tempting reward only to rob her of it when she gets to the fist” “She would soon learn that you were only teasing her, much better to teach her that she’ll get a good reward for coming, that’s why we will only be flying once or at the most twice each day for her daily rations”.
Soon “Oulu” was coming so quick to the fist that Jack could not get more than ten or so yards from her, so they abandoned the post and flew her from one to the other. Her rations were spilt into two portions so each could take it in turns to call her, once she was coming forty yards instantly Jack declared she should fly free. Gary was horrified, “What if we loose her” he cried. “Not to worry she’ll not go far” replied Jack with confidence.
In fact she never showed the slightest inclination to fly off into the great blue yonder as Gary had feared. Her training went ahead in leaps and bounds, her introduction to the lure, a rabbit skin wrapped around a one pound canvas dog dummy, went without a hitch in fact Jack remarked that he thought this hawk has read the books herself.
Finally the day came to enter her at wild quarry, Jack explained that they needed a fairly easy flight to build confidence. It was decided that the rough pasture on “Jacobs’ Farm” would be the best option. The rabbits were fairly plentiful and often sat quite a way out in the field concealed by the large tussocks of grass. “We could get a good long slip” suggested Jack. They left the assault on the rough pasture until mid afternoon, the same time as they normally flew “Oulu”, the day before she had had a little less rations, just to give an extra edge.
Jack walked through the tussocks with “Oulu” on the fist held high above his head, his fingers lightly gripping the jesses, this was to give her the best advantage for take off. “Mungo” quartered ahead just like a pointer, suddenly he crouched low to the ground and crawled along towards a tussock. Jack motioned Gary to come in slightly from the right side as Jack slowly walked forward. Quick as a flash there was a blur of rabbit and “Oulu” was away in a jangle of bells. The rabbit jinked around a group of large tussocks momentarily throwing the gos, she overshot tipped her wings, and using her speed, lifted about another five or so feet , turning on her left wing, swooped directly at the fleeing rabbit and had it by the shoulders.
The struggle was slight “Oulu” had a deadly grip, but Jack made in and dispatched her first rabbit, he called in both Gary and Mungo and they sat on the grass in front of the gos and watched her break into the rabbit and take a full crop.
The next afternoon after “Oulu” had cast they were out again looking for rabbits, the rough pasture was no use as “Jacob” had driven some sheep through it and the dogs had put all the rabbits to ground. As they walked the hedge rows a rabbit bolted ahead, “Oulu” was after it but it made the ditch well ahead of her, Gary had been carrying her and Jack whistled, “Oulu” turned “Hold up your fist” Jack shouted to Gary, “Oulu” returned straight back to the fist.
“Magic” shouted Jack.
“She’s a bute”. exclaimed Gary.
Mungo was pointing into a culvert running under the field entrance, it was too small for the dog to enter. “The rabbits in the drain , we’ll not get him out” cried Gary. “You just stand back a bit my lad, lift that gos high, and old Jack will show you a little trick” Stepping down into the dry bottomed ditch Jack found the end of a length of thin wire, “Ready now my lad” he said gentle pulling the wire hand over hand, “The other end has a loose ball of barbed wire, all the culverts are fitted out like this” , he explained as the rabbit bolted, “Oulu” was after it along the ditch bottom, and was just about to make contact when the rabbit turned and made its escape through the hedge and into the corn.
“Oulu” was left standing in the ditch bottom footing the leaves in frustration, Gary was off the mark in an instance, glove baited he called her and she returned.
“Good lad” called Jack “Lets cross over the river and try that corner of buck thorn scrub, Mungo might flush a rabbit from there”, called Jack as he strode through the field gate and made his way down the side of the corn field towards the river.
Gary, Oulu and Mungo followed in his path, as they reached the river Mungo was off, it was a warm day and he loves any excuse for a swim. As he ran down the bank he came on point in the reeds, “Hold it “, said Jack softly “Hold her high, go on Mungo see ‘em up”. With that the edge of the reeds exploded as two drake Mallards lifted from the water. They were up and flying along the river when Oulu hit the rear one, and straight into the river together. For a second she was under the water, as she surfaced she started paddling with her wings towards the bank. Gary slid down the bank and straight up to his waist into the mud and water, he scooped his gloved hand under Oulu and lifted her and the drake onto the bank.
As he looked up there stood Jack at the top of the bank, his face beamed a smile of pure happiness, “Aye lad, you've the makings of a fine falconer”.