Fauconnerie Bretagne is tucked down a side road just outside Huelgoat, very easy to find. It's run by Paul and Eleri Johnson, who are Scottish and Welsh respectively, retired from the British police and falconers of many years' standing.
We were welcomed into their lovely bright house, where what appeared to be a stuffed bird was sitting on the kitchen table, on a set of kitchen scales.
Inevitably I asked 'Is that a real one?'.
'He is,' said Paul, refraining from rolling his eyes 'touch him and you'll see.'
The bird shifted slightly and stretched a wing. He turned out to be a male lanner falcon, and was still and quiet because he was hooded.
Paul said he didn't much care for hoods but wanted to show us all the gear, including the hood, before getting started. After that the lanner was taken out, had his head uncovered, and was given a meal.
He ate so much his crop grew enormous, as you can see in the picture above.
Then we were shown around, and met the birds Tom would be flying, and some that he wouldn't,
like this saker falcon, whose name, like the lanner's, I have since forgotten. She seemed quiet and gentle. Paul said he had imprinted her so that she was rather over-fond of him and would need to be mated... he didn't go into too many details and having looked up the subject on the internet since it's perhaps just as well. Indeed, she kept looking at him rather winsomely,
and turning her head round in circles to look up at him. Also, he said, he tends not to fly sakers in the autumn as the urge to up and migrate to Africa can be too strong for them to resist.
Then there was this ferruginous hawk who was called Furia, and she was well named, she was apparently as mean as she looks, and not safe for students to fly. There was also an American great horned owl, who Paul said hated him, and who Eleri normally dealt with, and he was behind too much mesh to get a good picture of. There is a story of such an owl in an aviary in the US which killed an intruder, who had criminal intent, and the Collin's Bird Guide warns that, should one stumble upon an inhabited nest of a Ural owl, a bird of similar size and disposition, at the time when the young are fledging, one should get out of there fast or perhaps suffer a similar fate.
No such worries with these little darlings though:
a pair of barn owls called Rocket and Romeo. Paul's and Eleri's sons chose those names, Paul said he wouldn't thank them if Romeo got lost, and he had to be wandering the countryside calling him...
They're just mature birds now, but only weigh about 9 oz - the birds are weighed meticulously and their weight logged in metric and imperial. 'Try to find his head,' said Paul 'it's no bigger than a golf ball.' We ruffled among the silky soft feathers of the head which yielded endlessly like soft cloud, somewhere deep inside there was the tiny skull, but it was quite elusive.
We both had plastic bags with bits of dismembered day-old chick. 'This is the bit I don't like,' said Paul as he chopped up these rations 'I just wish they ate fruit or something...'. Oddly, handling the stuff bothered us little, it was very dead, we hadn't had to do the dismembering, and we wore plastic gloves to handle it, as did Paul, and the wonder of handling the birds quite overrode any distaste about what they ate.
Tom had an owl,
and I had the food on my glove. I tapped the glove and the owl left Tom's fist and flew to mine,
so then I had an owl.
Tom then got out a piece of food, and tapped it on his glove,
and the owl flew back to him.
And so it goes on till you've used up the food, by which time the owl's getting a bit slow and lazy, and has a kind of glazed look which, as Paul said, is the way we might look after one too many roast potatoes at Christmas.
One of the services they offer is a wedding performance: Paul stands at the back of the church with a barn owl, which is wearing ribbons or lace tied to its feet which match the bride's dress, and to which are tied the couple's rings. The owl flies the length of the church, alights on the best man/ring bearer's fist who is wearing a white gauntlet, he cuts the ribbon and give the rings to the couple. Charmed though we were by the idea of this piece of romantic whimsy and theatre, we were also quite amused at the thought that presumably the best man then has to feed the bird with a piece of dismembered mouse or chick. I assume this is done discreetly...
That was the bit I was actively involved with, which was a lovely surprise, as I only went along as a spectator; after that it was Tom's day. So thanks to Eleri for taking the photos of us.
Next he had some practice with a young trainee male Harris hawk called Jack.
Harris hawks are very popular in falconry, as they are adaptable and sociable, and Jack is one of three of these birds working at the centre. The males are light and quick enough to catch pigeon and pheasant, the larger females are more suited to things like rabbits. There was quite a bit of talk about catching rabbits.
'Do you like eating rabbit?' I asked.
Paul smiled. 'Not much,' he replied 'we don't really eat much meat. If we do catch anything with the birds we tend to feed it back to them.'
I had the impression that hunting, though they might do it sometimes, was more a means to an end with falconry as they practised it; it was the interaction between themselves and the birds which was exciting; later he spoke about the thrill of flying a peregrine to the lure, the speed and power of it coming to you.
Tom got on quite well with Jack,
there were a few moments like this,
but others like this,
and like this.
Then he moved onto the snowy owl.
Snowy owls are rather well-loved things these days, Harry Potter etc. This one was really just a youngster, you can see she's still got quite a bit of baby fluff round her head, and is still quite dark. As they get older they grow whiter and whiter, though the females are always more marked than the males, since they're ground-nesting and need the camouflage. She looks rather thoughtful and noble in the picture above, but in fact she was daft as a brush, bumbled and flopped about on the ground in rather a clumsy fashion,
and did quite a lot of squawking. Paul bent down and tickled her on the back of the neck and she wriggled like a puppy.
She posed very sweetly with Tom for the photo, but was just a beginner in her training,
and when it came to stepping from perch to glove for the food, she frequently fell off in between or hopped straight over and fell off the other side. She seemed fairly unperturbed though.
Next up was a young eagle owl called Attila.
She too still had some down about her head, and the ear tufts, which will be long and imposing when she's fully grown, were a little uneven. Nevertheless, she weighed about two kilos, and was slightly unsettling to be close to, though they are not apparently an aggressive species.
'Don't get your face too near her,' warned Paul.
She got whole dead chicks sometimes.
This time, partly because her weight was uncomfortable on his damaged left shoulder - the smaller birds gave him no trouble - and partly because she was just a bit of a bruiser and a still young and a little unpredictable, Paul set up three perches, and had Tom run from one to another placing the food and calling. He had to make sure he kept the food hidden and keep an eye on her so she didn't pre-empt him and come after him too soon 'Watch the bird, watch the bird!' Paul kept calling.
She too posed very agreeably with him though.
After tea and biscuits, and while I took Molly for a leg stretch, they prepared for the culmination of the afternoon, a walk with a hawk, free-flying and unaccompanied.
The hawk in question was Gwint, a fifteen-year-old Harris hawk, the oldest bird they have.
A Harris in the wild may live seven years, in captivity they can live to over thirty. Paul keeps saying he ought to retire Gwint, build her a big aviary and just fly her himself sometimes, but she's just so good.
Before the walk, Tom had to sit with her quietly for ten minutes or so, and allow her to get used to him, then to touch her beak and feet, and if she tolerated that, we could go. She allowed this, and Paul put her in a carrier in their car and we drove off to a woodland track some ten minutes away.
Buzzards called from high up and far away. Paul said they knew she was there already, but no buzzard would mess with a Harris hawk, they would simply fly over then keep their distance. He cast her up into the trees, gave Tom the food and had him call Gwint down. First off, she snatched the food before he could secure her jesses (the leather straps on her feet) and swept off with it to a nearby fence post.
After a couple more takes, off we went. Paul stayed by the car, we were on our own with her - though we had a walkie-talkie in case of emergencies.
For the first time ever, he said, she followed us a little way then turned and flew back towards Paul and the car. But then Tom showed her food and called her, and she accepted that he was the one to follow.
She flew behind and ahead of us,
sometimes landing in the trees,
sometimes on telegraph poles,
sometimes, especially after a few feeds, she landed on the ground, but she didn't stay there long.
And once she cheated a bit and ran along the top of the gate instead of flying.
She was quick and silent; the shape and colour and movement of her gliding and stalking and sweeping past and over us was an unforgettable sensation,
as were the moments when she rejoined him and came to his hand, Tom said.
When we returned to the car, she had her remaining food, which Tom threw into the air at Paul's shout as he cast the hawk up; she swooped, looped the loop and caught it faultlessly every time.
I can't speak highly enough of the whole experience of an afternoon at Fauconnerie Bretagne. We were booked for three hours, we had more like five hours of solid, fascinating learning and activity, because once Paul gets to sharing the birds and the sport he loves, really loves, he can't stop. We completely forgot to be tired or hungry - there were plenty of biscuits at tea time but we were so excited and interested we didn't think to eat many of them! It's the most wonder-filled, absorbing, magical thing to do, and an real privilege. And Eleri and Paul, and their three beautiful, sturdy, smiling sons, who came home from school later in the afternoon, are among the most amazing, generous, glowing people we've had the good fortune to meet, and spending time with them is a joy in itself. I would urge anyone to give it a try; we considered it very good value, and the unaccompanied walk with the hawk is a unique opportunity that few other centres would offer. The website is in French, but it's easy to get the gist and they'll do courses in French or English and supply all the information you'll need by e-mail. They hope to set up a visitors' centre and open to the general public next year, which would be marvellous, but the one-to-on courses will still be unbeatable.
And as for Tom,
Paul and Eleri Johnson
Pont ar Goyet
Tel. 0033 (0)2 98 99 79 44
E-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org