Hawking offers an exciting twist on rabbit control and an insight into a forgotten world. Rebecca Green joins Dave Hughes at Hawkwalk for a hunt with a difference

credit: rebecca

Hunting with hawks isn’t your average way to deal with a rabbit problem, but then Dave Hughes, who runs Hawkwalk in South Oxforshire, probably isn’t your ‘average’ hunter. As a young man, he spent eight years working for the circus as a lion trainer, then later with elephants and bears. So it is perhaps no surprise that he chose to combine a traditional country way of life with such exciting and enigmatic birds. For whichever way you look at it – whether from a hunting or bird-loving perspective – the falcons, hawks and owls are truly magnificent.

credit: rebecca

People from all walks of life join Dave on his experience days to see the birds in action. Today we are hunting for rabbits with two Harris hawks, Omar and Kushka. Kushka is a special bird – she was Dave’s first hunting bird and was named after one of his favourite tigers. She is also the oldest at 25. We are also joined by Dobby and Gwen, the cocker spaniels which make this type of hunting so satisfying (not just for cocker fans like me!) – the dogs hunt and flush game, which the hawks then catch. It’s a team effort.

credit: rebecca

Omar and Kushka are fitted with tracking devices and also wear a bell (otherwise they would be silent in flight), but even so it is still daunting to the uninitiated to see them fly off untethered as we head into the woods, the dogs busily hunting ahead of us. Dave, of course, is not worried. He has trained the hawks to return for food and carries day-old chicks with him. In the meantime, they follow us and the dogs through the wood. At times it almost feels as though they are hunting us as they come swooping in from behind!

credit: rebecca

They aren’t of course. It’s fascinating to see them watching the dogs, but also doing their own hunting. Although we are, to all intents and purposes, just having a relaxed walk through the woods, the sense of anticipation is great. The dogs are frantic, noses to the ground, little tails whizzing away like propellers. They alone are a joy to watch. But having the hawks adds another dimension. Now and then the bells jingle as Omar and Kushka fly between the trees – graceful, yet deadly – and there are moments of excitement when they spot something move below them and dive down to investigate, but as yet no rabbits; the wet weather has really taken its toll on populations around here.

Suddenly there is commotion ahead. The dogs have locked on to something deep in cover and both hawks swoop instantly. I’m amazed at how fast they are – and how precise. It turns out to be a dead cock pheasant. It hasn’t been shot but it is still warm under the breast, so it has obviously died recently. Dave retrieves it from the hawks (another very important lesson that is taught using food) and we carry on. As we head around towards a boggy area in the wood the dogs flush a muntjac. There’s a surge of excitement from all parties, until we realise what it is and Dave calls the dogs back. On we go again.

Nearing the edge of the wood I am just remarking that it doesn’t matter that we haven’t caught a rabbit when the bells sound. I turn just in time to see both hawks take off from a tree, clearly in hot pursuit of something. They are working in unison on either side of the hedgeline, swooping this way and that. We struggle to keep up with them, but get close enough just in time to see a rabbit forced out of the hedgerow by one hawk. Now in open ground the rabbit doesn’t stand a chance. The other hawk dives with deadly precision and it’s game over for the rabbit. It’s breathtaking to see the birds working with such stealth.

As we head back to the truck Dave explains the appeal of hunting with hawks. “Initially it was all about going out and catching something,” he says. “But after a while I really began to appreciate the birds in their own right. Then you add in the dogs and the ferrets and it becomes more about the team and the way it all works together. For me, the real joy is the thrill of the chase. Some of the best flights I have had are the ones where the hawk misses, but has sent the rabbit jinking this way and that.”

Each type of bird offers a different experience, says Dave. “The peregrines are exhilarating. They can fly at speeds of up to 190mph, which really gives you a buzz. The Harris hawks are a bit more chilled (you don’t hunt them from the glove) and can work as a pair, but if you want something to keep you on your toes go out with a goshawk!”

Although it’s not a numbers game with hawks, they are a good option for areas that you don’t want to work a dog, such as roadside paddocks. They also offer the deterrent element. “I’ve caught up to 15 rabbits in a day before but it’s not really something you can do commercially,” says Dave. “But if you enjoy working the birds then doing a spot of rabbiting is a good way of getting access to land and flying them. I got a lot of land through picking-up with the dogs on shoots.” Dave also works the birds on the grouse moors in Scotland every year, in particular the peregrine saker hybrid, Bob. “He’s had grouse, woodcock, snipe, duck – even a goose out of the air! That was fantastic, until I realised I had to carry it with me all day!”

Apart from the Harris and the hybrid, all of Dave’s birds are English and a lot of the equipment, from the blocks they sit on to the helmets they wear, are handmade. “Keeping the sport and the traditions that go with it alive is very important to me,” says Dave.

This link to the past is one of the elements of that makes the day so memorable. It’s a fascinating window into the quintessentially English world of falconry. Dave describes Hawkwalk as a ‘day with a difference’. It’s certainly an experience I will never forget, and one I would love to repeat.

About Hawkwalk

Hawkwalk is a small family-run business which offers a personal falconry experience for small groups (just two people attend a full day, or four on a half day).

There are 19 birds of prey, including kestrels, peregrines, a peregrine saker hybrid, sparrowhawk, goshawk, buzzard, Harris hawks, a little owl, long eared owl, eagle owl, tawny owl and barn owls.

Experience days offer a chance to learn about, handle and fly the birds. The full day includes an afternoon’s hunting.

Prices are £50pp for a half day and £95pp for a full day. See website for more options: www.hawkwalk.org

Telephone: 01235 811912 or 07966 293894

By Rebecca Green