The Goshawk, and its return to the Medieval Times

After working with Birds of Prey for a considerable number of years, both for individual falconry experiences as well as corporate events, I feel the general public are looking for something more exciting and different.

As an experienced falconer working firstly on my own and then with an established falconry centre the feed back that I have had concerning activities regarding hawks and falcons in general, has been very positive indeed.

Some years ago now, part of my day whilst with my clients, would be to fly my Harris hawks over Springer spaniels. This activity not only showed the working capabilities of the Harris hawks, but also demonstrated how dog and bird can work very effectively together as a team.

This activity, although still being utilized today in most centre’s, is somewhat dated and members of the paying public have seen it all before. So its time for a change.

In the early part of 2008, I decided to change my hunting team around ready for the next season. The new team member’s were going to be a pair of Goshawks. One male and one female would complete my team together with my spaniel’s as well as employing another dog, an English Traditional Pointer.

My idea wasn’t to copy the format laid down by the Harris hawks’ it was to allow the public to see for themselves how falconry was practiced in the Medieval times, and this of course could only be truly achieved with the noble Goshawk.

During the latter part of the 16th Century and into the early part of the 17th Century there was a falconer called Edmund Bert who employed his Goshawks to hunt in a particular way. Bert would never take a hawk from a dealer that wouldn’t take stand in a tree. His thought process here was if the hawk missed on its initial flush then they both had a second chance if the bird had a height advantage for a re-flush.

In contemporary falconry and in particularly with certain established clubs still around to this day, Goshawk’s are flown mainly off the fist at there intended quarry and either picked up from the kill or returned to the falconer via the garnished fist or lure. This practice, especially if there are other falconer’s within the group flying similar birds, is the safest for all concerned.

In Bert’s time, falconry was practiced to a very high standard by fellow professionals like himself, however there was an element of freedom within the sport, which allowed different practices to be pursued.
After considering my plan of attack, I started out in earnest. The land that I had to fly over was perfect. Semi dense woodland that held our main quarry, the rabbit as well as pheasant, partridge and woodcock through the course of the gaming season.

The first year to be fair was very disappointing, both birds were young and inexperienced, and the pointer needed more work before embarking on the second season. Whether Bert used dogs of similar stature that were around at that time, I couldn’t say, however it was his practices that interested me, and if I could demonstrate these in contemporary times, so much the better.

After some basic advertising concerning my Medieval hawk walks, one or two punters started to show interest. Although I didn’t get as many activities as I would have liked through 2009, it was a good year to test the water with regards the public. With the Goshawk being much more highly strung than the Harris’, my client group numbers would have to be seriously considered.

I decided to play it safe that second year and have no more than two people in a group. With two Goshawks, two different types of dog, an enthusiastic helper, myself and our guests, it was more than enough to contend with. The half dozen outings we had were certainly successful, and birds and dog’s were starting to come together, but something was still missing.

We didn’t have that atmosphere that you would expect whilst out hunting in the 17th Century. I had to realize what the problem was and overcome it. During that summer season of 2010, I had cracked it.
Our modern world is turning faster and faster than ever before. I Pod’s, Mobile phones, E-Mail and Internet connection run our lives literally. Convenience foods, sedentary jobs and laziness are all symptomatic of this era. In the Medieval times, if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. It was with this basic understanding that I suddenly realized how it could work.

Summer couldn’t come and go quick enough for me. I had a few early bookings in my diary, and I had to ensure that both hawks and dog’s were ready on time.

The day of judgment finally arrived, all the preparation had been done, all we needed now was good weather. My two clients arrived by 9.30am and after a swift coffee and introductions, we were off to our hunting ground.

I have available to me around 800 acres of flying land with a further 200 acres up the road should I need it. In order to make the maximum impact of what we were trying to achieve, I took them to a low valley area that is completely surrounded by dense woodland. The acoustics’s of this place are amazing. With no car’s to be heard, no people, and with all mobile phones deliberately switched off, the call of the female Gos, as it sat patiently on the hand of our client, was the only thing that told us we were back 400 years, medieval style.

It was decided to fly the male bird first. Sending the spaniel into some rough cover ahead of us, we soon had the first flight of the day. Weaving in and out of the woodland we were in, the hawk soon had the pheasant in his sights. A long tail chase ensued and both birds disappeared over into the next field.
Following quickly behind we soon recovered the hawk, but unfortunately no pheasant this time. We switched to the female. In the distance there was a long hedgerow, perfect for a rabbit or pheasant. I pulled the spaniel and switched to the pointer. If we were going to get anything at all from this hedge we needed to do it stealthily. Running the dog on, she slowly went down the hedge occasionally stopping short, sniffing the air and then moving on again.

We must have been almost to the end, when quite abruptly the dog turned to face the hedge and went on a solid point. With this bitch only being very young we moved into position quickly just in case she disturbed the set up. We got with in twenty feet of her and she was still solid. When a dog point’s in this manner, even after the years I have practiced falconry, you can’t help but get excited.

Dog on point, bird ready, it was time to send my assistant in to disturb whatever was there. Sure enough a cock pheasant got up and put in a desperate attempt to escape, but to no avail, the hawk was on it in a trice and we had our first kill of the day.

Walking further on we worked both dogs to the terrain we felt was suitable, sometimes the spaniel working then back to the pointer. We had probably walked another half an hour in total before we found what looked like a promising patch of cover.

With the male bird ready again, in went the spaniel. I knew straightaway there was something about because the dog was dashing back and too all over the place trying to scent it properly. Then mayhem erupted. Out of the far side exactly opposite where we were standing came a rabbit. The hawk was off the fist before I could blink an eye. The rabbit ran for cover, but the Gos had him in his sights and this time there would be no mistake. Binding to the head of the rabbit, the Gos soon had his prize, and was favourably rewarded.

Bowing both the hawks down to a temporary perch, we sat close by and indulged in that other lost pastime often overlooked in todays rapidly moving world; lunch. The hot coffee and sandwiches were good and hit the spot perfectly. As we sat and talked about what the afternoon might bring, both the dogs scented the air with their noses and kept looking back at us hoping there might be a few scraps for them.
After lunch, I had decided to take my clients to the south side of the valley that we had hawked in the morning. There would be more cover in this area, however there would also be the chance to fly more pheasants and possibly the odd partridge.

The female was the first up to fly and was positioned perfectly in yarak on my fist. The pointer ran on ahead of us sniffing the air, occasionally stopping to re-check a scent she had just gone past. Twenty minutes had gone by and although there was the occasional expectant point made by the dog, they all came to nothing.

I decided to try another wood. This particular woodland was extremely dense, however it did hold pheasant and if we were to fly the hawk close to the edge who knows what could happen.

With this strategy in mind, we pushed on. The Springer worked on in front of us pushing into cover where ever she could. Then from nowhere came the tell-tale signs of a pheasant lifting into the air. The Gos was away in no time and a full pursuit was underway. The hen pheasant had decided to come out of the wood and head for a hedgerow some 250 yards away where she could put into cover.

The hawk seemed delayed for some reason, struggling to negotiate the dense woods that we were in. In hindsight it might have been better to fly the male from this location, however a bit late for that now. As soon as the hawk hit open country we had nothing to worry about, the acceleration was staggering. She was on the pheasant in no time at all and took it cleanly in the air. A perfect catch for both bird and falconer.

Looking at the weather for the first time during the day, it seemed like rain was imminent, however I wanted to finish off this wood with the male bird. The female Gos was fed up and positioned on the assistant’s hand ready for the long walk back to the vehicle.

Off we went again. This wood was probably about 800 yards long, and towards the end of it there was plenty of cover for the dog to work. We pushed on and saw nothing for the first 500 yards then something moved in the distance, the hawk was slipped but unfortunately banked up into a tree a hundred or so feet ahead of us. I asked my clients to spread out in a straight line.

I explained to them that this is exactly what Bert was on about way back in the medieval times. The hawk had obviously seen something in the distance that we hadn’t, and had decided to take stand. We moved forward slowly and let the dog cover the ground first. Before we could get anywhere near to the area, the hawk vertically plunged into cover. I ran over expecting to see the bird on nothing more than a bunch of brambles, but as I approached him he was looking down at his feet. I moved in closer and took hold of the hawks free flight jesses. There sure enough clasped well and truly in both of his talons was a male woodcock.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Although the flight was nothing to brag about it was still a woodcock, and if you add to that the rabbit and brace of pheasant we had caught earlier, the day couldn’t have finished better. The rain was now beating down on us, and although we had some cover from the tree’s it was still pretty bad. The hawk was fed up and the day came to an end.
My clients were happy with the way the day had gone, and to witness many flights and of course the four kills that we had had. I admitted to them that most days are not normally so productive, and there are times when you can go out and see nothing at all.

We of course in contemporary times can handle the fact that if we don’t catch anything then it doesn’t matter, however during the medieval times the situation was far more desperate, and families relied on the Gos to produce whenever possible.
Today, our family would eat well, tomorrow who knows. One things for certain, owning a Goshawk and given enough time and preparation, we can all travel back to that time when the only thing that mattered, was survival.

Sadly in our modern world, we have lost that instinct.

Paul Melton (Falconer)

Castle Caereinion – February 2011