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Monday, 31 March 2008

Flying Goldies

" Chris, how do you fancy going to see Goldie's flown at Blue Hare in Scotland?"

That was music to my friends ears. Chris is actually my Tae Kwon-Do instructor. I had been training with the club for about a year without either of us knowing the other was a falconer!
Chris has only been in the game a few years, ( a yellow belt at Falconry he calls himself) anyhow Chris is a big Eagle fan.I had arranged with Neil Hunter a falconer and major collector of mine to go up and see his Eagles hunt. It had only taken us three years to get it arranged ! I was always busy so at the beginning of march started the final arrangements for a two day trip. I thought Chris would love this so on the 18th of March we were heading north on an easy jet flight to Edinburgh.we had arranged with Neil to pretty much head straight out . so on arrival as we cleared the doors of the airport there was Neil waiting or should I say driving by in his truck. We quickly bundled the bags in the back of the truck and got in.There hanging from the rear view mirror were three huge Golden Eagle Hoods! Better than any fluffy dice I thought, Neils smiling face said it all .He's one of those guy's that what ever he does he gives it 110 % enthusiasm and commitment.You cannot but be affected by this when your around him. Introductions made and we were off. A quick stop at Dobbie's a cafe where we met up with John Neil's brother and fellow eagle flyer all the time talking eagles and Chris sucking it all up like a sponge. After a breakfast of champions we bundled into the trucks and headed for the hill via a quick stop to at Johns to get our gear on and to load Johns eagle into Neils Truck.Neil is in a very fortunate position to have access at certain times of the year to nearly 30,000 acres of prime grouse moor . Now he admits that if he were flying falcons he wouldn't get a sniff of the place ,Its because uniquely he offers a good service to the resident keepers that he gets to fly there. By flying his golden eagles he is helping to reduce the number of blue hares on the moor.The keepers actively control their numbers because of the dreaded ticks that pass on disease and are also capable of killing grouse chicks. The reality is that actually Neil in a perverse kind of way is helping the hares . If he were not taking them with his eagles the keepers hold shoots to cull them and actually end up taking bags far higher than Neil and his eagles ever would. The moor we were on was beautiful and whats more pleasing is the weather was on our side! clear blue skies and a nice breeze. We pulled up and unloaded and Neil and John readied the eagles .John was flying Floyd his male and Neil flying two males , Taggart and Talon who was on loan from Jeff Mc knight.
Now when Neil said there would be alot of hares this did'nt prepare me for the amount that we actually saw. We lined out and started walking, we had'nt gone 70 yrds and an eagle was slipped at one. John took the first slip and his eagle was off the fist in the blink of an eye . Many of us think of eagles as great big lumbering giants of the bird of prey world, but this certainly isnt the case when being flown by experienced eagle men like Neil and John. A Goldies speed is very deseptive and Floyd caught up to his hare in no time. The hare put on the breaks, turning sharply to the right and shot away as the eagle threw up into the air , flipping over and swinging back down and intersepted the hare another ten yrds on . There was very little strugglefrom the hare once in those huge yellow feet . In fact Neil said its usually all over for the hare very quickly because of the massive power of the eagles grip. This basicly was the pattern for the day and we witnessed many great twisting and turning flight some of which went on for 3-400 yrds or more. Some ended with the eagles climbing up then throwing themselves into crashing dives ,smashing into the heather after the ever jinking and swerving hares. The eagles by no mean had it all there own way !many of the hares showed what amazing athletes they are . A hares main defence after running like the wind is to stop and wait for the eagle to commit to an attack . As the eagle streaks in the hare jinks or leaps out of the attackers path , sometimes literally over the eagle a few feet in the air. They also use the terrain . Eagles are disadvantaged going up hill once they have lost their initial speed. The hare again waits until the eagle comes in then sidesteps the eagle and then shoots up hill as fast as it can putting great distance between itself and the eagle .
Obviously though the eagles learn quickly too! and were successful six times in all. Things didn't always go well for Neil and John and a few times after an eagle was beat it would take off after another hare it had spotted and have to be recovered at some distance. I have huge respect for these guy's ,their physical strength and endurance would test the fittest and strongest of men . It helps with flying Golden eagles if your a big person . The eagles way 8-14lb depending on the sex. Its not lightly that Neil say's the ideal is a small male ! Once you are carrying a few hares caught and the Eagle the walk back to the car can be punishing . The distance you cover too whilst flying these mighty creatures is very deceptive .Before you know it you've covered 7-8 miles in no time over the sometimes knee high heather . Plus if your vertically challenged like me you have to lift your legs that much higher to clear it each and every step,and I think of myself as quite fit. But all in all you forget about burning muscles when your in the company of these magnificent predators and their natural quarry. The moor is a special place at this time of year .With Neils hunting coming to an end , the Grouse are displaying, the males with their "Go- back, Go-back,Go-back" calls reverberating around the hills .Skylarks singing in flight above . Between lunch we drove to a new place and I was rewarded with good views of the grouse courting on the tracks . There were Curlew and Golden Plover on the moor and the keepers were out burning heather strips . This was the first time I had seen this activity , you could see other burns going on miles away on other distant hills . It was a magical day and we came off the hill,( after lots more photo's of grouse !!!something the guy's ribbed me for "stop , stop there's another grouse " ) tired but rewarded with an experience many people will never see and I think they are the poorer for it.

left ,Grouse display flight, right Blue hare keeping a low profile,below Neil and Chris relax in the heather while John retreives his eagle

Chris was blown away and more determined than ever to fly an eagle . They certainly aren't for everyone and should only be, I think be flown by an experienced few with the land and quarry fitting for such a predator . Neil most definitely has that ,but he works hard to maintain it . Unfortunately our second day the weather turned against us . However not to be daunted we arranged to visit one of the countries most experienced eagle breeders ,Andrew Knowles Brown. Andrew made us very welcome and showed us some of his eagles at this very sensitive time of year , which we were very grateful for . Some of his eagles were on eggs but he allowed us to see inside some of the breeding barns. On behalf of myself and Chris I would like to thank Neil,John and their families for their warm hospitality, and also to Andrew . I think Chris will be back definitely and so to will I!


Yellow said...

That was a fantastic read, and the photos you've posted are amazing. I'm so envious of such a memorable couple of days. Lucky you.

Andy Ellis said...

Thanks yellow!
It was an amazing couple of days, back to being stuck inside painting today though.Shame as its a beautiful day, but got to pay the bills somehow.

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