Feature Over one sunny weekend in July, 15,000 people came to Britain from all round the world to celebrate falcons and falconry, heritage, conservation and the thrill of the hunt. Jonny Beardsall went along to get a bird's-eye view.
Three saker falcons, their heads covered by lovingly polished leather hoods, sit on perches while a saluki laconically stretches its legs outside a row of palm-roofed shelters. In the shade, women in abayas are weaving sadoo while a camel with a haughty face seems indifferent to a man in a white dishdash holding its rope. All is not what it seems. This is not an acre of Abu Dhabi but a mirage faithfully re-created on the Englefield Estate in Berkshire, where the International Festival of Falconry is taking place.
Falconry is red in tooth and claw, and birds of prey will never be vegetarians. It is the deadly pursuit of quarry with a falcon, a hawk or an eagle and the birds at the festival are hunters, not puffed-up zoo exhibits. All are bred in captivity - and never taken from the wild - but many breeds that are flown are also found in the wild. The festival, held this year on July 11-12, was sponsored by the Emirates Falconers' Club and hosted by the British Hawk Board, gives the sport a world stage and, with a few exceptions, is a man's world. It is only in its second year and yet falconers from 53 countries - from Croatia, Peru and Spain to China, Turkmenistan and the US - took part in a celebration of what is arguably the noblest form of hunting.
Not that many of the participants can understand each other. While a ready smile goes some way, teams of sweaty-browed interpreters are working the hardest at building cultural understanding. Making contacts and trading birds is on people's minds, but daisy-fresh initiatives such as the conservation of the houbara bustard and desert hare - both threatened species that falcons prey upon - are discussed.
Spread across 100 acres, the areas where birds are being flown are encircled by yurts and gers from Central Asia, Bedouin tents from Arabia and less divine-looking structures from Europe. Bringing a flavour of their heritage and tradition, the foreigners also share the contents of their cooking pots, grills and woks. And as they do so, 15,000 bemused visitors look on as if they've stumbled on to a bizarre set during a break in filming.
The real impetus behind this simply brilliant extravaganza is Dr Nick Fox, the vice chairman of the British Hawk Board, who has bred birds for the Royal Family in Abu Dhabi for 20 years. Straddling his quad-bike, he switches off the ignition, rubs his grey beard and gazes at the desert scene, which is being besieged by the public. "Isn't this is a fabulous sight?" he murmurs, as visitors gather around the BBC wildlife presenter, Chris Packham, with a bird on his arm. "Where else would you see a Kazak with golden eagle that could catch a wolf, or an Arab on a horse with a falcon? And how often do I have to kill 10 sheep and find a decent supply of local venison to keep the campers happy?" Given that the falcon is the only animal that is allowed in the cabin of an aircraft on Etihad Airways, you sense that falconry matters in the UAE. Saeed al Kaabi, the project manager with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, sustains me with Arabic coffee and sweets, and is eager to explain. "We're spearheading a multinational submission to Unesco for falconry to be recognised on the representative list of the world's intangible cultural heritage," he says. Intangible heritage encompasses living expressions and traditions - such as falconry - that countless communities worldwide inherit from their ancestors and pass on. "While it matters to the Bedouin, it also matters very much to the Royal Family who are dedicated falconers," he adds, offering me a date. I meet Mohammed al Baidani, the director general of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation in Abu Dhabi, which runs the world's first captive breeding programme to energise this bird's reintroduction. Used to studying them in deserts from China to North Africa, you sense he would be happier under canvas with the falconers than staying in his smart hotel. "I'd be fine in a tent," he admits, before describing the houbara. "For centuries it was the only source of meat for the Bedouin. It is the falconer's preferred prey in the desert because it's very fast and a challenging target." But the numbers of this sandy-coloured bird the size of a domestic hen have fallen. "Poaching, unregulated hunting and land use changes as well as a lack of public awareness have put pressures on this bird," he adds. Admiring a Saluki, Abylkhak Turlybaev is from the Central Asian republic Kazakhstan, where he is a revered falconer. Now in his early seventies, he cuts a fine figure in a green coat trimmed with gold and a felt hat that turns up at the edges. "I was born in China but returned to my country. I am very happy to be here in England," he says, albeit in Russian. To many people, his country is the home of Borat, the amusingly vulgar character created by Sacha Baron Cohen. To anyone who hunts with a golden eagle - but who doesn't come from there - it is a land of wonder. The Kazak left his eagle at home. The one big fly in the ointment is that UK quarantine laws mean few falconers arrived with their own birds. This has made Fox's task doubly hard as he has had to find 263 birds - from goshawks to Harris hawks - for his exotic guests to show to the public. "Would you lend your much-loved golden eagle to a wild-looking Mongolian who barely speaks a word of English?" he laughs. Eagles, falcons and hawks are pathological killers. Throughout the weekend they are seen to great effect in the sky above the main arena; they make repeated attacks on baited lures swung by the falconers or stoop on mechanical lures, which zip across the grass. While the golden eagle, with its more-than-two-metre wingspan, is effective hunting larger game above the steppes of Mongolia, only 10 to 15 are flown to hunt in Britain (200 live in captivity there). "My three birds work every day," says Robin Moor, from the newly founded UK Eagle Falconry Association. A year-old female sits on his wrist. "The colours change as they get older. They're darker in the first year before turning a golden brown, which depends on how much sunlight they're exposed to." At home he hunts between September and February. When they finish their moult in early September, he works them harder, reduces their food and cuts their weight by a third. "We hunt foxes and white hares in the Highlands and deer in Hungary and Czechoslovakia - I put them in their air-conditioned box in the car and off we go," he says. "They take over your life - if you fly one properly it takes two months to get them fit and they can stay up at 800 feet for over an hour and wait for their quarry to appear. When they pass over your head at 100mph (161kph) after a hare it's like an aircraft coming over you. Your heart beats with them at every step of the way - there's nothing like it on earth." In the wide open deserts of the UAE, the falcon takes centre stage. Usually flown one at a time, a falcon is slipped from the fist when a hare or bird breaks cover. Salukis work with them when hunting hares but the bird strikes first with a series of stoops or shallow dives at 190kph. It doesn't kill every time. If the prey jinks, it must gain height to attack again. The hawk is suited to hunting in close country between woods and farmland throughout the UK. Terry Large, who is flying hawks in the main ring, works birds with springer spaniels and hunts rabbits, sometimes pheasant and duck, depending on the season. "A hawk has a lower but faster trajectory, a much more level flight and works over shorter distances of around a quarter of a mile," explains Large, who is from Cheshire. "It's a fast aerobic session - they burn themselves out but soon recover. When they catch a rabbit, I will take it, dispatch it and give the bird a reward of food... hence the expression 'fair exchange is no robbery'." While most hawks and falcons in the UK are purely flown for pleasure, some pay their way working for pest control companies. From local authorities to airports, they can be seen discouraging pigeons in Trafalgar Square or keeping runways clear of other birds at Heathrow Airport. The festival is also educating the young. Over the weekend, groups of eight- to 10-year-old local schoolchildren came to see the birds and talk to the falconers, which is also a lesson in geography, language and culture. With 40 wide-eyed children milling around her, Katie Harker finds this red-letter day makes a change from a classroom. "It's fantastic, really different. Although they love the birds it allows the children to see so many different cultures they've never come into contact with before," says the teacher from Calcot Junior School, just 10 minutes away. "I really like the golden eagles," says Laura Workman, eight, her face hidden behind a painted falcon mask. "I enjoyed seeing the red kites. Once there were lots in this country but numbers fell to 20," says Megan Mackenzie, 10, from Parsons Down Junior School in Thatcham, Berkshire. "Now numbers are back up again and we even see them near school." Peter Devers, a researcher at the Archives of Falconry in upstate New York, is thrilled that so many children are here. "This festival is like the Olympics of falconry. This is the only place falconers from so many different cultures get together," he says. "I've never seen desert hawking with sakers and peregrines so I'm particularly looking forward to meeting the Arabs." Christian Habich is the Austrian delegate of the International Association of Falconers. Creaking around the arena in his great-grandfather's 80-year-old lederhosen, he and Joseph Hiebeler, a master falconer, watch intently as two fellow countrymen - one a girl riding side-saddle - canter into the arena, each with a saker falcon on her wrist. Mounted falconry dates from the Renaissance when there was a tradition of hunting heron and geese on the Hungarian plains when they were part of the Austrian Empire. "We keep it alive, only using Lipizzaner or Andulucian stallions," says Habich. "It takes six years to train a falconry horse, which must also be schooled in high-school dressage, and horse and bird must grow up together." Others enjoy dressing up. In the tent of the South East Falconry Group, Phillip Huzzey, a hunting guide, is dressed as Henry VIII while Shirley Medcalf, a former teacher, is Anne Boleyn. "The king loved his falconry," he says, showing me his male peregrine. "Only a king could fly them and only his queen would have flown a merlin." So where did they get the kit? "eBay,'' she laughs, before yet another entranced visitor itches for an introduction.