|As I stood knee deep in the dry golden bracken, just a few feet from the top of the hillside. I turned and looked out across the dale, what a view and by god what a day.
It was mid morning and the sun was glorious, the sky was blue with just a few white fluffy clouds. Only a slight nip in the air betrayed the illusion of an early summers day. It was in fact mid January, and I was in the heart of the North Yorkshire Moors.
Standing a yard or so behind me puffing on his pipe, was Morris, who owned all he surveyed and more.
Twenty yards or so to my right was his head keeper, John. It was through John that I had in fact been invited here to perform, well not me, it was 'Ivan' they really wanted to see in action.
Our invitation was to 'have a go at them blasted rabbits', as John had put it to me one night on the phone., I was always more than happy to accept such a request.
As I looked down the hillside to beyond the dry stone wall, where the bracken halted and cultivation started, I could see what he had meant. The farmer had tried growing a field of wheat, thirty percent of the field starting from the wall was bare, not a blade of green. Then the chomped stalks, slowly increased in height until about the middle of the field it was at its full height of twelve inches, which I suppose was due to the poor ground and the lack of fertiliser. Well I knew we were not going to make much of a dent in this population of rabbits, no matter how may times we were invited back.
Unfortunately there are much more efficient but ruthless methods for dealing with this quantity of rabbits. Luckily, we were here to show a bit of sport, or should I say 'Ivan' was.
He was already high above us, riding the moor top breeze on broad dark wings. I could just make out the gold on his head as he watched us below.
'Ivan' is a trained adult male golden eagle, with a flying weight of seven and a half pounds, and a six foot wing span.
Very few eagles are trained for falconry in Britain, mainly because they are difficult to obtain and are reputed to be temperamental in training and subsequent handling.
They are certainly no bird for the beginner to falconry, as you require a great deal of open country in which to fly them.
I could see that 'Ivan' was starting to get a little impatient with waiting above he knew there were rabbits in this bracken and was starting to drift along the hill, I explained how we would beat our way through this infernal cover and thus set about to serve our winged companion.
John moved about twenty yards down the hillside and had just started beating along the line of the hill when he flushed the first rabbit. Ivan had obviously been watching John, for no sooner had the shout of RABBIT left his lips, Ivan had closed his wings, rolled over and stooped, crashing into the bracken no more than ten feet in front of John.
When I got to him and parted the bracken I could see he had the rabbit in one foot and it was dead. I offered Ivan a small reward, the front leg of a rabbit which I took from the meat pouch in my hawking bag. I offered it to him in my gloved hand, and he stepped onto my arm, releasing the rabbit. This I slipped into my bag whilst he was occupied eating his reward. I waited until he had completely finished and had feaked his beak, that is to clean his beak with a stropping motion across my glove, and then picking up any tiny morsels of flesh thus removed . When all this important instinctive ritual is completed, I raised my arm facing him into the wind. Feeling the updraft from the dale below he halt opened his wings and allowed the lift of air to take him up to about twenty feet. He banked to the left across the wind and climbing higher moved further along the hill.
We continued beating expecting Ivan to return as before, after about two or three hundred yards, he would turn and glide back towards us. Then circle above where we were beating, checking the ground for any movement, he would then fly fifty or so yards behind us just in case any rabbits were making a sneaky retreat. Once satisfied he would glide on ahead, all the while watching below for the slightest twitch of a rabbits ear. This pattern of flight he would repeat time and time again as we moved slowly forward, trying to dislodge the rabbits from this dense cover.
Suddenly a shout from Morris, as I looked ahead I saw Ivan in a spectacular stoop, corkscrewing down, wings tightly tucked in, he looked like a massive bolt from the blue. It then dawned on me that his aim was not taking him into the bracken, but further down into the farm land. 'Oh god, I hope it isn't someone's chickens 'I cried. Just then he levelled out, clipped the top of a thorn hedge and crashed into the edge of a cornfield. l ran through the bracken and over the dry stone wall, desperately trying not to dislodge any more stones, as it sadly needed some restoration. I staggered up to Ivan, gasping for air and with heart pounding in my head. There he proudly stood with a large buck hare in his feet, its back leg gently kicking a final nervous twitch. I lifted Ivan off the hare and rewarded him, I slipped the hare into a small sack I carried in my hawking bag. This I hid near the dry stone wall and would collect at the days end. Its no joke trying to carry an eight pound hare in a hawking bag attached to your waist belt. As I climbed over the wall Ivan decided he could get to the top of this hill a lot easier on his own. He opened his wings, I released my grip on his jesses and he was away. He was back in position before I was half way up the hillside, I waved to John and Morris to carry on beating as Ivan was about fifty feet above them and waiting to be served.
He caught two more rabbits before we decided to call it a day. As we made our way diagonally down the hill, John virtually stood on a cock pheasant, it burst into action, its verbal cacophony was still ringing in my ears as I saw Ivan close his wings and start to plummet earthwards. Now, he rarely takes any notice of feathered quarry, and I had informed our host of this matter with almost certainty.
Ivan had commenced his stoop some thirty or forty yards behind us and it was near vertical, perhaps he had seen a rabbit, the old cock was now cracking on ahead. My companions were still watching the departing pheasant, Ivan levelled out of his dive and passed between Morris and I at about shoulder height. With wings still tucked tight to his body he flushed past like a missile. I saw Morris flinch at the sound of the parting air. He overhauled the pheasant in a couple of seconds, and as he came level, he rolled onto his side and we saw a large yellow foot, reach out and pluck the pheasant out of the air. He then turned into the hillside and landed.
I was speechless,' then Morris whooped out and yelled 'BRILLIANT'.
I apologised. 'Sorry?'he yelled 'That was the best yet, I've never seen anything like it. What a brilliant day'.
ALL WORDS AND IMAGES ARE ©Alan Gates 2006.