Gone Hawking-Falconry Lessons at Ashford Castle
By Debi Lander
A dignified hawk soars over an emerald green meadow, and then rips through the air, plunging downward, deftly making a kill for his owner. Falconry, hunting with trained raptors, is an ancient art. In recent times it has again become popular, and now Irish falcons are in high demand. Small wonder: the native Peregrine is the fastest bird of prey, estimated to dive or “stoop” at over 200 mph.
The sport arrived in Ireland by the seventh century, with nobles flying prized hawks and falcons in contests; hence it became known as the sport of kings. For common folk, birding provided a means of survival. And now my family, instead of larking around on vacation, would fling ourselves into a highly anticipated adventure, at an ancient Irish site.
Falconry was well established in 1228 when the Normans laid the first stone of their tower, which later became Ashford Castle. Hidden in the wilds of County Mayo, Southwest Ireland, the fortress kisses Lough Corrib’s shores, said to have an island for every day of the year. Acquired and restored by the Guinness family, the huge chateau-style building is fit for a king, including Rapunzelesque turrets and towers amid formal gardens. Indeed the Prince of Wales, later King George V, visited for a shooting holiday in 1905. More recently actor Pierce Brosnan rented the entire estate for his three-day wedding.
“It is inconceivable that throughout Ashford’s history, falcons and hawks were not kept within the castle grounds,” said Deborah Knight, owner of Ireland’s School of Falconry.
Today Peregrines nest only 15 minutes away from land once belonging to the estate.
Upon entering the stately hotel, we receive directions to our scheduled Hawk Walk. Off we traipse down walkways lined with gnarly old trees, hung low with lichen-laden branches. Ferns and spongy moss cover the ground, while shafts of sunshine peek through gently swaying foliage. Soft swirls of mist add to the mysterious aura in this fairy-tale-like enchanted forest.
We arrive at the School’s high walled fence, carefully guarding the valuable animals. Rod Hare–our aptly named instructor –welcomes us to the aviary, introducing the birds of prey. “Harris Hawks have keen eye-sight, approximately eight times better than a human’s and are naturally inclined to co-operate,” he explains. Rod, an Australian with a subdued Crocodile Dundee persona, charms us with his vast knowledge and stories of raptors’ deadly conquests.
We enter the mews, a quiet, dark enclosure for the birds’ overnight protection against predators and poachers. Untrained Harris Hawk chicks sell for $700 and a Peregrine for $5,000 or more. Falconers carefully record every bird’s weight, keeping each under the fed-up level, so they want to work for food.
With our wee bit of knowledge, we don heavy leather gloves called gauntlets on our left arms. Rod picks up Liffey, a chocolate-brown and black-feathered Harris Hawk, and perches him on my fist. Liffey calmly peers at me with his russet eyes over his curved blue tipped, yellow beak. I timidly grasp hold of leather strips or jesses, attached to his ankle bands. All the birds wear falconry bells to help locate them in the wild. My daughter Laura receives an equally majestic bird, named Skellig. Our hawks will fly as a pair, a social trait unique to this species.
I feel privileged, like Mary Queen of Scots, an avid falconer, who often flew merlins. Tis an honor to carry this living creature, I think, strolling to an open glen to “cast off”. Like a Mama Bird nudging babies from the nest, I pray them to spread their wings and fly. Up they rise, fluttering onto the lower tree branches, watching us carefully. ” No problems so far, ” I say, but have to wonder, will Liffey and Skellig return?
Rod pulls a gob of meat from his pouch and hides it between my gloved fingers. When I extend my arm, quick as a flash, Liffey plummets for it and my heart rate accelerates to hummingbird-speed. Whoa–what a thrill. I forget to be frightened, watching the hawk greedily snatch the lure with his sharp talons, feeling the pressure through my glove. I am Mother Nature with a haughty grin; I feel powerful. Yet Liffey is in control, trained to follow his instinct for food; he merely permits me to enter his world.
Then I look over and sense Laura’s trepidation as she braces for Skellig, who swoops to fetch his prize. Instantly she laughs with glee. “That’s brilliant,” she exclaims, an expression picked up in the UK. She turns to us, looking smug.
Together we hide in the twisted tangle of bushes, playing hide and seek, which is all too easy for out feathered friends. We develop a partnership, a rhapsody with the raptors. They don’t even have to sing for their supper, as we provide them with fast food— if they come and get it.
To better understand how raptors hunt in the wild, we exchange the birds for a female hawk, named Balina. We carry her into the overgrowth, where a rope and pulley hide. Rod attaches a lure to the rope–a meat-garnished pretend rabbit and we fire-off the mechanism. The little lady dive bombs with such force, she almost crashes and bounces off the ground. What an awe-inspiring simulation. Being amid the action is far superior to mere sightseeing.
Rod quickly steps in, making a meal trade with Balina, while she “mantles” or surrounds her food with her wings. My husband Jay humorously mimics her loud squawking. In a true hunt, the falconer wants to keep the catch and not permit his bird to feast.
Then my group returns to get Dingle, a European Eagle owl weighing four pounds, much heavier than the hawks. Rod explains how his unique serrated edged feathers permit silent flight.
“The owl is a stealth assassin,” he says. “They catch their prey with 100% deadly accuracy,” he continues. “They have eyes equipped with telescopic lenses and their hearing is exceptional. These fellows can detect a mouse 100 meters away and they absolutely rule the night.”
Rod attaches a tracking device to Dingle as Laura inspects the owl’s surprisingly scrawny body, camouflaged by downy fluff. We exchange our gloves for thicker ones, to protect against razor sharp talons. Owls are not good falconry birds, often undecided about chasing quarry. Should he not cooperate, Rod could locate him using the monitor.
To entice Dingle to work, our instructor scoops an owl’s version of a tempting morsel onto my gauntlet, shows it to him–then the proud falconer, and his trained- but- temperamental bird, strut away. The path is straightforward and we all are ready. The hooter swoops low, almost touching the ground with his enormous wingspan and, at the last moment, pounces onto my wrist.
“Saints preserve us,” I cry –something my Irish Mother-in-law often says. What a regal creature; I am euphoric and can hardly resist petting him, like my golden retriever, as a reward for a trick well done. Touching is not allowed, as birds of prey do not understand that type of behavior. Falconers get deeply attached to their birds, but the raptors aren’t emotionally attached. They work solely from appetite.
Afterward, Jay and Laura have a turn experiencing the difference of landing an owl versus a hawk. My trio photographs each other, attempting to capture the moment of the strike.
Completely unaware of the time, the cold and dampness, we regrettably end our exploits. This twilight performance includes all the scenes an Irishman would spin into a spirited story. And it doesn’t take long …together we march right to the hotel bar for hot mulled wine- or hot chocolate- and begin bragging about our extraordinary escapade.
The word “raptor” comes from the Latin word meaning “to seize,” and taking a hawk walk was more than seizing the day. The Ashford afternoon humbled us: we were delighted by Dingle who gave us new admiration and understanding of owls. Liffey and Skellig, the Harris Hawks, touched our hearts, not just our gloved hands, accepting our entrance into nature’s food chain. Throughout the world, birds of prey symbolize power, and our encounter in Ireland left us with a powerful raison d’etre: to roam again with raptors.
If you go:
A car is needed to drive to rural Ashford Castle, approximately 30 miles from Galway in County Mayo. Pass by farm fields, crumbling stonewalls and flocks of wooly sheep before reaching the tiny hamlet of Cong. The town is famous as the location where The Quiet Man was filmed, a 1951 movie, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
Ashford, a five-star castle hotel, resembles a country manor house with paneled lounges, carved ceilings and blazing fireplaces scattered amidst suits of armor and objects d’art. Don’t miss the hall of fame-a room filled with hundreds of signed photos from notables who have stayed at the castle.
Lough Corrib is renown for spectacular fishing, and the Castle grounds for shooting, riding, golf and the Falconry School.
Ashford Castle in Cong, Country Mayo–http://www.ashford.ie/.
Ireland’s School of Falconry–http://www.falconry.ie/
Telephone 094 954 6820