Here's the problem with falconry, the ancient sport of using trained birds of prey to hunt wild quarry: eagles, hawks and falcons are famously reclusive predators, and if the falconer does not master the bird completely, it may simply decide to return to the wild, fly off and hunt for itself.
Falconry's appeal is rooted in this unlikely, fragile alliance between humans and species celebrated in statue and coinage worldwide for their freedom and independence. The peregrine falcon, for example, can glide hundreds of feet in the air, then use its extraordinary vision and aerodynamics to dive at prey at speeds of over 320 km/h. Yet if trained, this magnificent Darwinian weapon will choose your arm as its perch.
At the British School of Falconry at the luxurious Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, the difficult task of keeping the birds tame, which consists of hundreds of hours of conditioning, is done by a team of four highly experienced falconers, so even the uninitiated can enjoy the thrill of working with these wild creatures. The school houses six eagles, four falcons and 36 hawks; the latter are available to beginners every day but Christmas for falconry lessons in the expansive garden.
There is the option of a half- or full-day hunt. Pupils can take the birds out onto fields and wooded areas on the school's sprawling hunting grounds. Your hawk follows you overhead by moving among the branches, its natural camouflage hiding it from feeble human eyes. Should a rabbit or other quarry dash out from a bush underfoot, the hawk swoops in. It's remarkable that a creature made lethal by millions of years of evolution should put its consummate hunting abilities at your service. But lest you feel its nature has been tamed, remember to hurry over to snatch the rabbit away. Should the hawk eat too much and lose its hunger, it may decide it has finished hunting with you and fly away.
Prices range from $120 for a 45-minute introductory lesson to $500 for a full-day hunt. Visit gleneagles.com and click on "activities."