'The Lure of the Falcon.'
First Published in the Austringer 1993
& The Falconers & Raptor Conservation Magazine September 2000 Issue 42 & 43
It sounded like a dozen distant drums as the rain bounced off the corrugated iron roof of Greg's isolated stone croft. As he lay, warm and snug in bed he knew without opening his eyes that it was morning, and by the intensity of the sound on the roof that it was coming down in stair rods.
'Damn the weather' he muttered, as he pulled the blankets over his head to dull the noise of the rain.
Yesterday had been a beautiful blue sky day, just typical of highland weather, when you plan to do anything the heavens open.
It was just a week into the start of the roe doe season, and for Greg who was a part time self employed stalker, this was a chance to earn some badly need cash.
He owned a couple of hundred acres of hill land, mainly deciduous woodland, and was slowly creating a nature reserve of his own. He had spent the last five years cutting back the bracken and replanting trees, 25,000 so far. Government grants had helped pay for the initial expense of the trees, but no one pays for the labour. He had not planted conifers which would yield a quick profit. Instead he favoured the hard woods, silver birch, oak, beech and sycamore. Slow growing but much more beneficial for the wildlife.
The roe deer on his land had to be controlled as they could munch his little trees quicker than he could plant them. In the long run it would benefit the deer, as the woodland grew it would support more deer.
Greg tried to make the most out of his task of controlling the deer. He regularly placed an advert in a monthly shooting magazine for competent shots, to spend a few days in the highlands and enjoy the skill of stalking a roe deer under the careful guidance of Greg.
He restricted the party of stalkers to two at a time, and if the weather permitted they would attempt a dawn and dusk stalk each day.
Each stalker would pay Greg £25 for each stalk on the hill. If they shot a deer the carcass remained Greg's', which he would butcher and sell for around £15.
Greg would cull in this manner about twenty five deer a year. This was his only winter income, in the summer he spent his time as a guide for a highland holiday company, taking groups of amateur naturalists on wildlife holidays to the Western Isles.
As he lay in bed listening to that incessant rain, he cursed at the loss of his fee for the mornings stalk. Two shots had travelled up the day before, and had planned to have a dawn start.
Greg had managed to make ends meet with this type of employment for the last five or six years, but this year things were starting to bite. Garage bills for repairs to his old van, which really needed replacing, the old iron roof of the croft needed repainting and the dreaded poll tax were all playing on his mind.
As he rose from the depths of his warm bed and looked out of the window, his hopes of the evening stalk looked bleak. His little croft nestled on the side of Loch Erisort, but as he looked through the bedroom window he could not see the far shore for a thick blanket of mist had descended. The rain beating down made the surface of the Loch look like a giant cauldron coming to the boil, the mist just added to the effect.
Greg stoked up the stove and filled the kettle for a brew, he just finished dressing and was about to start breakfast when the phone rang. Thinking it would be the lads who had come up for a couple of days deer stalking, he was taken by surprise to hear the loud and hurried voice of Dick Slater,
'Hi Greg, how ya doing, hope I didn't get you out of bed, look mate I'm coming up your way next week, I'll call and see you on Wednesday, O.K.?' he blurted.
'Um I think that will be fine, I'm always in around lunchtime' replied Greg.
'Good, see you Wednesday, got a little job on, a bit in it for you, can't stop now, see you soon, ta ta', click, brrrr, and he was gone.
'Crazy begger', muttered Greg, as he went back to start his breakfast.
The weather had cleared by the time Wednesday came round, but it had totally spoiled the chances for the lads who had come up for the stalking, and consequently Greg had not earned a fee. His money problems were now starting to depress him, which was so unlike his normal laid-back attitude. Dicks telephone call had slipped his mind, and he was enjoying the warmth of the early winter sun on his back as he chopped some badly needed kindling, when the peaceful silence was broken by a continual beep beep beeping of a car horn. As he looked up and laid down the axe, a Range Rover sped along the dirt track that led to his croft. Travelling too fast for comfort and lights flashing, he could see Dicks round rosy face behind the wheel.
'Crazy begger' Greg muttered and carried on cutting kindling.
Dick pulled to a halt just before he had run out of track and ended up in the Loch.
'Hi Greg', he shouted as he flung open the door and jumped out.
'Its good to see you, how long's it been', he said grabbing Greg's hand.
'God it must be going on three years', replied Greg.
'Come in, I've got a brew going, did you have a good journey up?', said Greg as he carried a basket of fire wood into the croft.
'It was a good run, I set off early, taken me just three and a half hours, not bad, eh', grinned Dick.
'Crikey, three and a half hours, what have you got in that thing! rocket fuel' They'll catch you one day doing speeds like that you barmy begger', warned Greg.
They both sat down at the bare wooden table in front of the stove. Greg poured a well stewed brew into two mugs and they chatted about the old times.
'So how are you making an honest crust these days'? enquired Greg.
'Breeding hawks and parrots, and buying in a few to sell on' replied Dick. 'We've set up a large incubator and brooder room and we even take in other breeders eggs to hatch and rear, for a good price mind you'. he went on.
'Its going great, this year we reared over fifty different species of raptor and twenty odd of parrots. Average price for falcons is a grand a piece, the parrots a little lower because we are hatching some African Greys and they are cheap compared to some of our rare macaws which are two to three thousand a piece.
'What crazy beggers pay that sort of money' spluttered Greg, nearly chocking on his mug of tea.
'You'd be surprised old son, we've sent them all over the world now'. 'With the hawks, I'm aiming at good quality which are strong hunters, once the word gets around that you are breeding good sound stock, the enquiries come from all over'.
'You see', he went on, 'a lot of so called raptor breeders just chuck the first two birds they get as a pair into an aviary, with the results, poor to average and not worth the going price'.
'God it sure beats selling dodgy jewellery, I can tell you' said Dick leaning back in his chair.
'Ah, you've stopped all that cloak and dagger stuff'. grinned Greg.
'Yeh, it got a bit hot at times, I can tell you, mind I still dabble a little now and then', confessed Dick.
'I might have known you'd take some weaning off that caper',smirked Greg. 'Anyway what's this bit of a job you want me to do, it better be straight',said Greg, knowing full well that anything to do with Dick was usually far from straight.
'Well I've got this old pal, German he is, Otto Rosenburg, really nice,you'd like him, anyway he lives just outside Vienna now, Used to buy a lot of jewellery from me in the old days, you know.'
'Got pots of money, lives in a dirty great mansion-castle sort of place. He's a falconer and raptor breeder, and his father was a great German falconer. He's a bit like me, in that he believes in breeding from good stock, only he is a bit more fanatical about it'.
Anyway I was over in Austria the other month, I called in and stayed with him for a couple of days',explained Dick.
'Fine, but what's any of this got to do with me?', said Greg impatiently.
'Steady on, give us another fill of that stuff you call tea and I'll tell you the story he told me'. Dick clasped the hot mug of tea in both hands, leaned back in his chair and lifted his feet onto the log basket near the stove.
'Go on', said Greg, somewhat hoping he would get to the point before bedtime.
'Well, Otto used to come over here with his father when he was a lad, his father used to get an invite from the late Duke of Byland to fly his falcons at the grouse. Its the Duke's land on the other side of the loch isn't it?, enquired Dick.
'Ay' said Greg uncommitted like.
'Thought it was', continued Dick,''Anyway they use to stay up here for four to six weeks in the grouse season, Otto's father would bring about six peregrines all strong game falcons, and they used to have some terrific sport. Otto said it was some of the best flights he can remember'.
'He has many fond memories of the Duke's setters on point, with Rani their best falcon climbing high in the sky to get to her pitch above the dog, ready and waiting for the grouse to be flushed. When just at the moment the grouse left the heather, a blue streak flashed past from nowhere and cracked down one from the covey , only to carry on at full speed.
Otto's father would curse and swear at the cheek of this wild falcon for spoiling his sport and for showing up his favourite falcon. Although he never admitted it Otto knew his father greatly admired this wild pirate.
The Duke's keepers told them this wild falcon came from an eyrie on the sheer south face of Beinn Mhur.
Now that Otto is breeding falcons from great hunting birds, he asked me if I could get him two young falcons from this strain on Beinn Mhur,' said Dick looking at Greg intensely.
'You wont get a licence to take peregrines from the wild, they stopped all that, now so many are bred in captivity', said Greg, surprised at the enquiry.
'I know, but there are still ways round that', said Dick quietly.
'Come on, even if you take them, you'll not get export licences. There is too much bureaucracy these days. You've no chance', dismissed Greg.
'I could if they were ringed to say they were captive bred and had official paperwork to prove it', smiled Dick.
'How the heck are you going to pull that one?', asked Greg, knowing full well by the large grin on Dick's face, that it was already worked out.
'Well me old son', said Dick trying to keep up the suspense. 'You know I was involved in the jewellery trade, well you get to make a few contacts. I just happen to know a chap who can make first class forgeries of bird rings.'
'Now this scam will only work for this particular job, because you don't find fanatics like Otto everyday, not with his brass anyway', explained Dick.
'You see the idea is that I will take two of my legally genuine captive bred peregrines, which have just been rung in the presence of DOE bird inspectors, then my little friend makes two identical rings with the same numbers on.
Now this is where you come in. You old son, pop up Beinn Mhur to the peregrine eyrie and slip the two forged rings onto two eyas falcons. To make matters right we will cut off the rings of my birds and you again will swop by birds for the Beinn Mhur eyasses.
Everybody's happy, Otto gets his super blood lines, the peregrines don't loose any eyasses, and you and I make a nice little bundle', concluded Dick.
Greg pondered for a while on what he had just heard. 'How much and exactly what do you expect me to do in all this', he said finally.
Dick shuffled about in the hard kitchen chair in which he was sitting. 'God these are a bit hard on ya bum', he muttered.
'What I want you to do is to keep an eye on Beinn Mhur, and then let me know when those eyasses are ready to take. I will then bring up my eyasses and we will do the swop', see nothing to it grinned Dick. 'Oh, I nearly forgot, you then pop over to Vienna escorting our little feathered friends to Otto's mansion.
'Why do you want me to travel with them, why not send them on their own, or better still you go with them', enquired Greg rather suspiciously.
'Well, I could send them as normal on their own, but I don't want to risk them being held up for any reason. If you are travelling with them, you can help sort out any problems or queries as you speak the lingo', explained Dick.
'Got it all worked out, eh you crafty begger', smiled Greg. 'Except in all this you haven't mentioned how much I get from the exorbitant price you are no doubt charging Otto'.
'What do you mean exorbitant!, don't forget I'm donating two first class captive bred eyas falcons to the wild', cried Dick in defence.
'Alright, but how much', demanded Greg.
'One thousand lovely pounds, plus your air ticket to Vienna and modest expenses'. 'How does that sound to you old son', smiled Dick.
'It would certainly come in very handy', pondered Greg. 'O.K. your on', he said offering Dick his hand to shake on the deal.
'Great', smiled Dick. 'Bloody great, I'll come back in spring, mind you keep an eye on that mountain and those lovely falcons in the meantime'.
The next day Dick left at his usual breakneck speed. Greg doubted he would see Dick again in the spring, it was not unusual for these mad cap schemes of Dick's to fizzle out just as quickly as they were concocted.
Greg had to prepare for the winter, and make sure the wood shed was well stocked with split dry logs.
The days became very short in winter this far north, and the weather could block you in for weeks.
When the snow fell in the glen it was often too deep to walk, this kept Greg house bound and bored. After the first few days with all the neglected household chores completed, he was champing at the bit to be back on the hill.
Luckily, this year as it turned out, was not a bad year. Only blocked in twice, and not for more than a few days at a time. This had suited Greg fine, but he knew this gradual change in climate was not a good sign. Nature at least needed these harsh winters, it was her way of cleansing the system. Killing off the bugs and pests and sorting out the weak, making sure only the very fit and healthy made it through to spring and a new breeding season.
All this man made pollution was changing the climate, Greg had moved to the highlands to get away from all the filth in the south. Sadly there was no where totally free. He had noticed speckles of muck in the virgin snow. Picked up in the atmosphere, frozen acid rain in fact.
With the coming of spring and the gradual and welcomed lengthening of the day, Greg had noticed the falcons in the vicinity of Beinn Mhur. First just a single bird at a time, but one morning whilst Greg rested his bones on a comfortable rock in the warming sun. His attention was focused towards Beinn Mhur by the anxious 'chekking' calls of the falcons. Through his glasses he could see both peregrines stooping in turn, then into view came the reason. A juvenile golden eagle now flying out over the loch and trying to dodge the stooping peregrines. This eagle had inadvertently come too close to the falcons territory and was in no uncertain manner being shown the errors of its ways. It would remember in future, and steer well clear of that rock face.
Greg knew from this demonstration of territory defence that the peregrines were favouring this site for this years eyrie. So long as nothing disturbed them, this is where she would lay her eggs.
Greg was pleased with what he had just witnessed, not only was it a fine display of falcon stooping, but it had saved him many hours foot slogging the hills searching for this years site.
That evening as Greg was clearing up after finishing his dinner, he was pondering on Dick's proposal to swop the eyas falcons. He would welcome that extra cash, the bills were starting to pile up again, and Duncan from the garage was threatening no more credit for petrol and repairs until he saw the colour of some cash.
Suddenly the phone burst into a strangled warble breaking the silence and giving Greg a jolt.
As he picked up the receiver, his ear was filled with that unforgettable breathless breakneck speech of Dick's. 'Hi old son, How are you?, what's the weather like up there?, are you keeping an eye on those falcons?', he blurted without even stopping for a breath or waiting for an answer.
'God you must be telepathic or something, I was just thinking about you, you old rogue', replied Greg, 'And yes I think I know where those falcons are going to nest', he continued.
'Bloody great', shouted Dick, 'I've spoken to Otto and he is really excited about getting these falcons'.' I'll ring you again in about six or seven weeks, by then the young ones will be ready to ring and we can swop them with my two. Is that OK with you?', Dick enquired.
'Sounds fine with me' replied Greg.
'Great, see ya then mate. Ta ra', and he was gone.
Greg kept a close watch on the famous falcon and her nest ledge.
He first knew the eggs had hatched, whilst watching the tiercel land on the nest ledge with food, he could hear the eyasses chittering to be fed.
It was time Dick was here, he thought.
That evening Greg phoned Dick, and as always Dick was very excitable.
'Oh bloody hell', he shouted on hearing the news that the peregrines had eyasses.
'I've only just had mine ringed today, It'll take a couple of days to copy these rings, I will try and get up to you by this weekend. God its all happening a bit earlier than I expected'.
That evening Greg sorted out his climbing gear, it was a lot of years since he had dropped into a falcon eyrie, he began to feel the old adrenaline flowing. At the bottom of his old rucksack were his faithful climbing irons. 'Well I wont be needing these', he said softly to himself. As he handled them he felt a sticky substance on the spikes. Amazing, fir sap still tacky after all those years, mind the damp cupboard helped to keep everything moist.
As he rubbed his fingers trying to remove the sticky sap he recalled the last time he was belted to a tree, feet straining in those irons, ears deafened with the defiant keking of an angry German female gos not far away. As he tried to work his way around a large stick nest to remove a couple of eyasses, palms sweating stomach churning, expecting at any minute to receive a passing smack in the back of the head from the angry female.
As he day dreamed of those days collecting eyas goshawks to send to British falconers he could swear he could smell the pungent pine of the nest trees.
Next morning Greg had an unexpected visit from Roger Dowkes, who was a staff member of the Scottish Society for the Protection of Birds. Roger said he was just passing, but it made Greg a little jumpy, he tried to keep calm but he felt Roger sensed maybe a flutter in Greg's voice.
Then after a little casual small talk he dropped a bombshell in Greg's lap. 'Have you seen tricky Dicky lately' he said.
'Who' enquired Greg, knowing full well who tricky Dicky was.
'Come on, your old mate Dick Slater', said Roger abruptly ,' his name came up on a routine report of suspicious parked cars in the area.
'Oh well, he was up here for a day or so a few months ago', spluttered Greg. 'he probably stopped for a pee on the way home', suggested Greg.
'Maybe, but I don't like that hook this side of the boarder so close to the nesting season. Things always seem to go missing after a sighting of tricky dicky. Im warning you Greg, watch that one'. Roger said sternly.
'He's not interested in pinching birds, he breeds dozens of them', defended Greg.
'Maybe so, but we'll be keeping an close eye on him from now on'. 'I’ll look forward to catching that one red-handed', smiled Roger.
As Roger drove away, Greg worried, trust Dick's vehicle to get spotted, things were looking too hot.
I’ll ring Dick and tell him its all off, he thought. 'But what if they have tapped my phone, Nar they can't do that, mind I’ll use a phone box just in case, Greg said to himself.
That afternoon Greg phoned Dick from the village call box and told him about Roger Dowkes, Greg felt it would be safer to call it all off, but Dick would hear none of it.
'Don't panic, he's all wind and water that Dowkes', said Dick. 'We'll be in and out of that eyrie before he's had breakfast. I got the rings, so I’ll be up late tonight and we'll do the swop at first light. So I’ll see you later on, Ta ra', click gone.
As always ringing off before Greg could reply, this infuriated him as he shouted SOD into the dead receiver.
Greg had settled down to watch the late film on television when the silence outside was broken by a car dragging the gravel outside his door, trying desperately to stop before going past and into the loch.
Greg was not familiar to the engine sound, but the style of driving was definitely Dick's.
Greg went outside to see the back of a smart new Subaru estate car, from which emerged Dick with that stupid grin from ear to ear.
Is he ever miserable thought Greg, feeling the inevitability of it all. There was no saying ‘no’ to Dick, he just didn't hear that word.
'New car?', spluttered Greg.
'Well you said Dowkes had my number, so I thought there was no point making life easy for him', sneered Dick. 'I've got the eyas falcons and they are still wearing DOE rings, wont cut them off till the last moment, so lets go in and have some tea, I'm starving', said Dick pushing Greg back inside.
The next morning Greg rose at three thirty, it was still dark outside, but only just.
The kettle was simmering gentle on the stove as Greg rattled the fire. Placing half a dozen or so quarter splits of dry fir wood onto the hot ambers soon brought a squeal of steam from the heavy iron bottomed kettle.
Greg placed a large mug of tea beside Dicks bed and gave him a sharp dig with his foot. Dick just rolled over and pulled the covers tighter around him. Greg lent over and flicked Dicks ear with his finger which caught him fair and square, Thwack, went his ear lobe. Greg wasn't prepared as Dick exploded up and forward. The bed was only a foot or so from the wall, as Dick fell to the floor his bulk pushing the bed back and into the knees of Greg who was still leaning over it. As Greg's legs went from under him he went face down onto the now empty bed, spilling the contents of his mug of tea over Dick on the floor.
Dick was howling blue murder, although it was more from shock of the abrupt awakening, than from the temperature of Greg's tea, which was at best luke warm.
It certainly helped to lighten the atmosphere, every time Greg spotted Dick's red ear lobe, he fell about. Dick took it all in good fun, and as always used it to his advantage to keep Greg jollied along.
The morning dawned still and slightly misty as they both stood above the falcon eyrie. Talking in a soft hushed voice, Greg explained to Dick as he secured his ropes to a very convenient Rowan tree. Within minutes of arriving Greg disappeared over the edge, abseiling down to the eyrie.
Suddenly the dawn silence was shattered as an angry tiercel circled above screaming his protest. He was soon joined by the falcon making even more noise, as soon as she arrived the tiercel stooped at Greg, and Dick felt the rope jerk.
Dick called out to Greg, but he got no reply, no doubt Greg could not hear with all the noise the peregrines were making.
Dick assumed that Greg was on the eyrie ledge, as both birds were stooping in turn, they were putting on a fantastic display.
Three tugs on the rope signalled to Dick that Greg had reached the bottom of the crag. He hurriedly pulled up the ropes and packed them away in Greg's old rucksack. By the time Dick arrived at the base of the mountain, Greg was sitting on the falcon box with his head in his hands.
'Have you got them, how many was there', asked Dick excitedly.
'Four altogether, I got two good sized falcons, mind I had a hell of a job ringing them, another day of so would have been too late. And that falcon hit me three times, fast, bang, bang, bang. She stooped, hit me looped over hit me again and again. I've never been hit by a falcon before, Christ she nearly knocked me off the ledge, good job I had this climbing helmet on.
'Now you see why Otto wants these falcons, they are bloody fearless', smiled Dick.
'Lets get back home and get some breakfast, the sooner these birds are off the hill the better I'll feel', suggested Greg.
After breakfast things started to move fast. Greg packed an over night bag and tidied the croft. With everything in Dick's estate car they were away by nine o'clock.
They were to spend the night at Dick's, pack the falcon eyasses into a travelling box, and Greg would set off for Heathrow in the morning, Dick was to follow on and meet Greg at Otto's.
All went like clockwork, Greg sailed through customs, all the relevant documents were in order as Dick was a stickler for detail.
Otto had Greg met at Vienna airport and driven to his mansion, Greg felt this was all too easy, and still could not really see why Dick had insisted he accompany the eyasses to Otto's.
Otto was beside himself with excitement when Greg handed him the box containing the two eyas falcons. After meticulously examining them both, he hurried them away to one of his breeding chambers,to be introduced to an old peregrine falcon who was an experienced foster mother.
That evening Otto entertained Greg to one of the best meals he had ever consumed, and afterwards engulfed in a large leather high-backed chair he sipped brandy and talked of beloved highlands and islands.
The door opened and in walked Dick, Otto leaped to his feet and through his arms around him in welcome. Greg noticed that Dick seemed agitated, and when he emerged from Otto's embrace, he knew all was not well.
'What's wrong with you', enquired Greg.
'I'm not sure, call it paranoia but I think I was followed from the airport', said Dick.
He had hardly spoken when they heard a vehicle pull up on the gravelled drive. Muffled voices in the entrance hall as they were greeted, and then the announcement that the visitors were from Interpol.
Greg nearly fainted, what on earth would Interpol want with a couple of falcon eyasses.
As the officers entered the room, one face was horribly familiar to Dick and Greg. Roger Dowkes of the SSPB came in behind the two Interpol officers.
'Hello Greg, I told you to keep away from this one, he's nothing but trouble', whispered Dowkes, as the officers introduced themselves to Otto.
Dick butted in, 'What are you poking your nose into now Dowkes, this is nothing to do with you, these are captive bred falcons and here are the documents to prove it.
'They look in order' said Dowkes as he leafed through the paperwork. 'But I would like to see the young falcons'.
'Well you can't, there under a foster bird, and that would constitute undue disturbance', insisted Dick.
At this point Otto interrupted, 'I have no objection, the old falcon will not mind as long as these gentlemen keep nice and quite whilst we are near her chamber'.
He led them out of the room, and then picked up the phone to instruct that part of the security system be deactivated. As Otto led them to his Falcon mews, Greg noticed that Otto still had to tap in code numbers to open the doors, and that the security cameras still followed them as they passed each one.
Otto went into another room, and passed through a hatch to Dick the two eyas falcons. Dick showed the closed DOE rings on each bird to Dowkes, who checked in turn the paperwork.
'Well you have done a good job here Dick, I can't tell', he said shaking his head.
'What do you mean, these are quality domestic bred falcons. I only produce the best, that is why the best falconers like Otto order from me', demanded Dick. Greg was getting decidedly anxious, he could not believe how convincing Dick was, he just prayed Dowkes didn't turn his attention on him.
Dowkes offered the eyasses back through the hatch to Otto, then he offered a well disguised apology for interrupting the evening.
The three of them then entered into a little light-hearted banter, centred on Dick's reputation. Greg just kept smiling and praying. All the while the two Interpol officers stood stern faced and never said a word.
After a few minutes Otto led everyone back through the security system and to the front door.
Just as they were about to leave one of the officers finally spoke. He asked Otto in German, if he could see the crate the falcons were transported in. Otto look puzzled and went to fetch the box. It was a fine box, beautifully constructed in thin plywood and yet very rigid. The inside was lined with hessian, and the falcons had been in a sort of hammock which was sewn to the sides.
The officer cut and removed the hessian, as though he was looking for something hidden. He tipped the box over to see if there was a false bottom, bits of discarded food, castings and a shower of feather quill dust fell to the floor. Dowkes apologised to Otto for the mess the officer was making, and went down to pick up the castings and old bits of meat. As he placed them back into the box, he rolled one casting between thumb and index finger as he would any casting found on the hill, to identify any prey species falling victim to predators. In the centre of the casting was a hard lump, as he looked at the contents in the palm of his hand, a small scellotaped tube emerged from the centre of the casting.
In the tube was a sizeable diamond earring, the other casting revealed the pair.
'Oh Dicky, hot rocks, you just can't resist them can you', grinned Dowkes. 'And there was I thinking you were pinching Scottish falcons, bloody smart that feeding the rocks parcelled up in the falcon food. I think you had all better come along with us gentlemen'.