Falconry at the Greenbrier

Falconry at the Greenbrier

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Hello, Autumn!

No, not the season, though we are less than a month away from my favorite season, but Autumn the beautiful, slightly over two pounds Harris Hawk, who lands on my gloved arm. She’s actually named Fomhar (Gaelic for autumn).

We are at Ireland’s School of Falconry — the oldest in the country and home to more than 30 birds, including the always popular Dingle the owl. The school is located at Ashford Castle and on our recent Hawk Walk here and also at the British School of Falconry in Scotland,” we learned some of the rudiments of the “sport of kings,” reputed to be the oldest sport in the world.

Did you know the term “hoodwinked” comes from the practice of putting a hood over a falcon or hawk’s head to calm them? “Under your thumb” comes from the way you are supposed to hold hawk’s leather straps in your gloved hand. “Fed up” originally meant the falcons had eaten plenty and would have no interest in hunting.

It’s no surprise kids can’t seem to get enough of the birds and falconry. Eleven-year-old Will Reed, who is from Michigan, is back for a second go-round and is hoping his mother will let him do a third.

“I’d never held a hawk before,” said the equally excited Cole Harmon, 10, who is from California.

Part of the appeal of resorts like this one and Gleneagles in Scotland, is the chance to sample iconic country sports that aren’t readily available in many places, said Emma Ford, who started the British School of Falconry in 1982, England’s first, moving it to Gleneagles in 1992. “We haven’t looked back since,” said Ford, who is also author of several books on falconry. “Falconry is the most popular activity we have. Guests come back again and again and ask for the same hawk.” They may just go off for a short Hawk Walk or go out in the Scottish countryside in an off-road vehicle for several hours, hunting rabbit.

She adds that Harris Hawks, which are native the American Southwest and Mexico, traditionally work as a family team, making it easier to hunt with more than one bird at a time. Most importantly — they get on really well with new people.

Will Reed with his Harris Hawk buddy

Will Reed with his Harris Hawk buddy

Falconer Conal Dixon, a former grade-school teacher and our guide at Ireland’s School of Falconry, says even preschoolers can participate. “The kids are better than their parents,” he said. “They don’t think about being afraid … they just think awesome!”

Besides the chance for a memorable vacation experience, falconry can offer kids an up-close and personal lesson in the natural world and why we need to protect it, falconers say. This is the only sport to use trained wild creatures. “We get a lot of kids who leave here wanting to become vets,” said Dixon.

“Everyone is interested in wildlife and the natural world now,” added James Knight, who, along with his wife Debbie, started the falconry school at Ashford Castle. “This gives them a chance to see the birds in a different way.”

We certainly do as we learn to sweep a gloved hand upward to show the falcon there’s food for them. (The birds are weighed daily to make sure they aren’t too heavy to be interested in what morsels you have for them.) Fomhar whizzed by my ear in search of a mouse here, a bird there.

At Gleneagles, my new hawk friend, Margo, meanwhile, caused quite a stir among the children when she flew off in pursuit of a pigeon in a tree. Suddenly a lot of feathers fell and a hush fell over the crowd. But the pigeon escaped and Margo came back to us.

They always come back because, Dixon explained, “they know they are going to get fed and it is a lot easier than hunting.”

In case you are wondering, there is a North American Falconers Association devoted to encouraging the sport, and there are a handful of schools in the U.S., as well — the Green Mountain Falconry School in Manchester, Vermont, has now returned to the Equinox Resort to offer lessons for their guests. There are falconry experiences in Hersey, Pennsylvania, in Southern California near San Diego and at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia where it’s free for kids 12 and under.

It’s not cheap, with experiences typically starting at over $75 per person and some require kids to be at least 12, though kids far younger can participate in Ireland and Scotland. (Ireland’s School of Falconry and the British School of Falconry have special family and group packages.)

But the cost, families say, doesn’t deter those who are intent on a unique vacation experience they can share.

Falconry, said Ford, likely originated in China around 2000 BC, as a way of obtaining game for the table. The pleasure of training the birds spread to Britain as early as 860 AD. The sons of gentry were taught falconry for the same reasons they learned swordsmanship — without its mastery they weren’t thought to be properly educated. The Royal Falconer was a respected post; Richard II created the Royal Mews for housing his falcons.

World War II decimated the sport in England, Ford said, as so many falconers left to fight. But it is making something of a comeback — the British Falconers’ Club has some 2,000 members and there are a dozen falconry schools throughout the United Kingdom. In fact, James and Debbie Knight brought falconry back to Ireland after a stint at the Fords’ school. With the newly renovated castle hotel at Ashford (more about that in another column) set to be open all year round, Knight believes interest will only grow, especially among American families. And there’s no telling where that interest will lead them.

After all, Emma Ford first got interested as a child when new neighbors moved in next door. “I peeked across the wall and came face to face with a Falcon. … I was mesmerized,” she said.

Her parents fostered her passion when they nixed the idea of a horse, but allowed her to have a hawk instead. She trained her first eagle at age 8. “It is a passion,” she said. “And we are lucky to be able to share it here.”

Kids today are as fascinated as she was, some returning every day of their visit. For some reason, she said, American kids are the most curious.

Like Will Reed at Ashford Castle.

“Awesome!” he said. “I want to move here!”

(For more on Eileen’s trip to England, Scotland and Ireland, read her travel diaries at ttk-old.o2dev.net.)