Rabbithawking with the goshawk

By J. E. Harting
- as it appeared in 'The Hare' - 1896,
edited by Jakob E. Borch.


     WE REFER in this text to the art of taking rabbits with a trained goshawk. We find both rabbit and goshawk (as well as ferret) mentioned in the Book of St. Albans, 1486, and learn from that very curious compilation the technical terms which were expected to be known by 'gentylmen and honeste persones in comunynge of theyr hawkes,' and other animals. For instance, when referring to old rabbits it was customary to speak of a 'bury of coneys,' or if young , 'a nest of rabbettes.' The sportsman found a coney 'syttynge,' and when killed, it was not skinned but 'unlacyd,' while the warrener's useful four-footed allies were referred to as a 'besynesse of ferettes '- all very quaint, though the sport itself was pretty much the same then as now.
     Rabbit-hawking has much to recommend it. It is not difficult to carry out in an enclosed country where long-winged hawks cannot be flown; it is an effective mode of keeping down the stock of rabbits in places where they are apt to become too numerous; it may be practised at any season of the year, and, as it may be pursued without any noise, it does not, like shooting, disturb the winged game. As to the sport which it affords to those who participate in it, experto crede.
      The first thing to be done, of course, is to procure a goshawk, and for this one must send to France or Germany. It is very many years since a goshawk's nest was found in Great Britain; not since Colonel Thornton, of Thornville Royal, Yorkshire, a keen falconer and good all-round sportsman, discovered one in the forest of Rothiemurcus and trained one of the young birds. This was at the end of the last, or beginning of the present century, since which time no similar discovery has been recorded. The goshawks trained and flown in England at the present day (and we know of many) are procured from France or Germany; chiefly from France, where, thanks to the good offices of some of the French falconers, they are annually looked after, the nests protected, and the young birds secured at the proper season. The price varies with the age and condition of the bird. You may get one through a German dealer for a couple of pounds, but it will be a chance whether the flight feathers will be unbroken, and perfect wings are a sine quâ non in the case of a hawk that is to be trained and flown. It is better to pay a little more, as at the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris, and secure a good one. Occasionally a goshawk is taken in a bow-net by one of the Dutch hawk-catchers at Valkenswaard in North Brabant, and is sent to England with the falcons which are annually forwarded in autumn to the members of the Old Hawking Club and others; but as a rule the birds captured there are peregrines, for which at the present day there is greater demand.
     As to the mode of training, if the purchaser of a goshawk has never handled a hawk before, and knows nothing of the matter, he will do well to provide himself with some modern treatise on the subject (such as 'Hints on the Management of Hawks,' published at The Field office), wherein he will learn the rudiments of falconry, and find a special chapter on the goshawk. If he wishes to find real enjoyment in the sport, he must train the bird himself, and not depute it to another. A hawk must learn to know her owner, or she will not allow him to take her up when she has killed her quarry. She must be fed by him; carried by him on the glove as much as possible, bare-headed, that is unhooded, to accustom her to the sight of men and dogs, that she may put off all fear and become as fond of him as a dog would be, knowing his voice and obeying his call, or 'lure.'
     Supposing that the hawk has had put on the legs, just above the feet, 'jesses' (or little leather straps) by which she is held, to the ends of which are attached the 'swivel' and 'leash' by means of which she is tethered to the 'perch' or 'block,' the first step is to get her to come off the perch on to the glove to be fed; and this is accomplished by offering a little bit of meat, or the leg of a fowl, or rabbit. When she will step readily on to the fist, the leash being untied, the distance should be increased from a foot to a yard, and at length to several yards, until eventually she will fly willingly across the room to her master.
      This lesson being repeated out of doors from a field-gate, or the top of a stone wall, while for safety a long line is attached to the swivel, she will in a few days come readily when 'called off,' and the line may then be discarded.
     She may then be lured with a dead rabbit, or a part of one, thrown down and drawn with a string along the grass. After coming readily to this several times, she is next to be 'entered' to the live quarry. For this purpose a young rabbit or two may be easily procured by ferreting, and being placed under an inverted flower-pot which can be pulled over from a distance with a piece of string and a cross-stick through the hole in the bottom, the hawk is slipped at the right moment, and rarely fails to take the rabbit at the first attempt. Another trial or two of this kind, and she is ready to fly at a wild one. l he critical part of the training is now at hand, and great care must be taken to avoid disappointing the hawk; that is to say, the rabbit should be well in the open, and not within reach of a hedgerow or burrow into which it may pop just as the hawk is about to seize it. It must be remembered, says Capt. F. H. Salvin, who has paid much attention to the goshawk, that one great point in the successful training of all young hawks is to avoid, as far as possible, disappointment in their early attempts. This necessitates the sacrifice of some few unfortunate birds or beasts, which have no chance of escape given to them, but is in reality little more than what other sports demand, such as cub-hunting, and the numbers of young grouse or other game annually sacrifi ced in the process of dogbreaking before the commencement of the shooting season. A small stock of rabbits, say four or five, had better be caught for the purpose of 'entering.' As soon as a goshawk will take these rabbits in a 'creance' (or long line) she may be considered ready for the field. Encouraged by the success of these first attempts, she will go on improving every day, and the more she is carried and flown the better she will become.
     The worst fault which a goshawk possesses is that of 'taking stand,' that is, perching on a tree in order to command a good position when the game is put up. Unless very keen, a hawk in this position will refuse to come down to the 'lure,' and will obstinately sit still, looking in all directions for the quarry. For this reason it is a good plan to begin the training on open ground destitute of trees.
     Some persons are under the impression that flying a trained hawk on a manor must tend to drive the game away; but this is not the case. It has been conclusively shown elsewhere (1) that flying falcons at grouse does not spoil the moor for shooting, and it is the same with the goshawk when flown at rabbits. All is done so quietly, that one may capture a dozen rabbits in an afternoon without disturbing the game half so much as if a dozen shots were fired. On this question the following letter, received from one who has tried it, is to the point: 'Having enjoyed four seasons' hawking with a well-known sportsman, who has about 5,000 acres of shooting, I have heard it said by many, and have noticed it myself, that we found more game on ground where we had had three seasons' hawking, than on those portions of the farm where we could not hawk. I hope the good old sport will increase.'
     To show what success may be attained even in the first season with a young goshawk, we may refer to the bag made by a falconer still living. In his first season with a young female goshawk (better than a male because larger and stronger) he took 322 rabbits, 3 hares, and 2 magpies, and the following season 280 rabbits, 2 leverets, 11 partridges, 4 magpies, and 2 squirrels.
     A well-trained goshawk, belonging to Mr. John Riley, of Putley Court, Herefordshire, took 70 rabbits in fifteen days, killing 10 on her best day. This was in her third season. In her first year she took 110 rabbits, 2 pheasants, 13 water-hens, and 1 rat; in her second season 130 rabbits, 1 pheasant, 3 water-hens, and 1 stoat. The same falconer trained a male goshawk, which in his first season took 26 partridges, 10 pheasants, 16 rabbits, 5 landrails, 12 water-hens, and 1 stoat.
     In The Field of May 2, 1896, Sir Henry Boynton, of Burton Agnes, Hull, wrote as follows:
     'It may interest some of your readers, who are lovers of falconry, to learn what I have done with a nestling goshawk which I brought from Nordland, Norway, in June, 1895. She killed her first wild rabbit on September 17. Her two best days were as follows: the best 24 rabbits out of 24 flights; the next best day 20 rabbits out of 24 flights. The hawk had throughout the season, on an average, a three-quarter crop a day, and was consequently in the very highest condition, which rendered her able to undergo the hardest work that a hawk is capable of enduring. She was flown on seventy days, and the total bag for the season was: rabbits 407, hare 1, rats 5, stoat 1, weasel 1, total 415 head; and every one of the quarry mentioned was killed in fair flight, without being handled in any way.'
     It is, of course, not to be supposed that the hawk will kill every time she is flown. The rabbit may get to ground, or into a hedgerow, before he is overtaken; and the owner, if he be wise, will not slip his hawk at a rabbit which is too near one or the other of such retreats. There should be plenty of room, and the longer the course the better for all concerned.



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