x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Carried away by falcons

A special day dedicated to schoolchildren at the International Festival of Falconry left them wide-eyed and organisers thrilled to be able to demonstrate Arabian culture.

BERKSHIRE, UK // The desert life of Abu Dhabi was recreated yesterday in the unlikely setting of southern England' rolling hills. In stately Englefield Park, the emirate sprouted anew, complete with sand encampments. Guardians of the desert camp fires brewed up tea and coffee for guests, while ladies demonstrated traditional crafts.

In one corner of the village children were learning about Bedouin traditions, hearing hunting tales around a campfire under the stars, tracking hidden birds of prey via radio, and drawing a live falcon in an art class. The first day of the three-day International Festival of Falconry was dedicated to schoolchildren, and hundreds of them were wide-eyed with excitement as they came face to face with some of the Middle East's most stunning and dramatic wildlife.

Gyr falcons from the deserts of the Middle East mingled with golden eagles on the arms of Kazakh wolf-hunters, all in the sculpted landscape of the park. The children's village also welcomed the popular naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham, who stood with a peregrine falcon on his arm as he spoke to hundreds of rapt young listeners. The Emirates Falconers' Club, the major sponsor of the event, was expecting to draw more than 10,000 visitors from 50 countries.

The Abu Dhabi contingent featured a range of exhibitions showcasing Gulf heritage. "This shows how our grandparents lived, in the desert," said Hamad al Kaabi, managing the stand of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. "It is all quite new for English people, so we are giving them information about our history and learning about how we can get closer. "Falconry is our heritage. To Arabic people it represents strength. Last time we were here there were only falcons to see, but the new idea is to give a complete picture of the UAE."

Majid al Mansouri, the executive director of the Emirates Falconers' Club, welcomed the inclusion of schoolchildren at this year's event. "Education is an essential component of the club's initiative for the preservation of falconry and the introduction of the schools' day provides an ideal opportunity to reach the next generation of potential falconers," he told the state news agency, WAM. Mohammed Saleh is the general director of the UAE-based International Fund for Houbara Conservation, which is dedicated to protecting and breeding the Houbara bustard, the main source of prey for falcons in the Middle East and across into desert areas of North Africa and Central Asia, as far as China.

"We established the fund to bring all projects in all countries under one roof, to continue efforts made by the late Sheikh [Zayed] in the 1970s, to protect or reduce the pressure on the Houbara by collaborative breeding and public awareness," he said. "Today we are showing visitors the efforts made and the achievements we have reached. For instance, this year we have hatched 16,500 chicks." He stressed: "It is very important because you have two elements to Arabic falconry - the falcons and the bustard. No other prey can replace it."

Mr Saleh added: "I spend a lot of time in the desert and in the Steppes, studying the birds, ringing them, and to come to a place like this is wonderful. "It is a fantastic location and a really good place for this kind of festival, to have all these falconers from all these countries, coming closer to share their knowledge and skills. "In some countries, where it is traditionally associated with royalty, in the UAE it is not. It is related to Bedouin life, where people would catch falcons during the migration, use them to hunt and then release them."

Jim Chick, the chairman of the Hawk Board, the umbrella body for UK falconers that organised the event, hailed the involvement of Abu Dhabi. "Arabian falconry is central to European falconry," he said. "They are one of our major sponsors and major participants, and we are very pleased to see the Arab contingent here." In addition to the cultural and heritage authority, participants from the Emirati capital included the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, the Arabian Saluki Centre and the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.

"You only have to see the interest the children are showing to see the impact they are having," Mr Chick said. Amber Baird, an eight-year-old schoolgirl from nearby Sulhamstead and Ufton Nervet primary school, admired a beautiful cross between a gyr falcon and a saker falcon. "She's lovely," Amber said. "I like the feathers and the colours." Kieron James, aged 10, was taking in the art. "I liked the activities and talking about saving the hawks," he said.

"I also liked all the people's clothes." The Second International Festival of Falconry opens to the general public today. * The National