See a demonstration of falconry and learn about our local birds of prey, the ancient art of falconry from Wings Over the Water near the Tournament field. Don't miss their flying demonstrations at 12:30, 2:30 and 4:30.
The birds are on view all day at the Austringer's Village immediately adjacent to the Tournament Field.
An Austringer is an old word meaning one who keeps goshawks.
Hawks soaring over head are quite common this time of year during the annual raptor migration that is taking place right over your head. An excellent viewing point is the northern end of the Heather Garden
There is no hard evidence as to exactly when and where man first trained a bird of prey, but the art of falconry was already well established in the Middle and Far East by 2000 BC.
It is likely that the Romans were taught falconry from the Greeks and,although the practice does not appear to have become overly popular, there are references to Caesar using falcons to destroy pigeons carrying messages.
In more recent history, falconry has enjoyed a more widespread and consistent popularity, not least as a sport of kings. It was reputedly the favorite sport of every King of England between Alfred the Great and George III, except perhaps for James 1 (1602-25) who, although a practiced falconer himself, apparently spent much of his time experimenting with cormorants and ospreys to catch fish. Much has been written of King John's passion for crane hawking (for which he flew a cast of gyrs given to him by the King of Norway) and he often brought hunting parties here to the Test Valley to fly falcons at herons. It was due to the practice of ringing these birds before they were re-released, and therefore the accumulation of information about their numbers and locations, that the Test Valley heronries are documented in the Domesday Book.
It was not only the rich who hunted with hawks in the Middle Ages. Labrers relied on hunting what they could for the table, often illegally. King John, to improve the rewards of his own personal hunting, prohibited the taking of all feathered game in the Royal Forests, which then covered vast areas of the British countryside. Despite his subsequent order that a hundred paupers should be fed with the proceeds of each hunt, the law would have caused an inestimable amount of suffering and hardship if it had actually been enforced effectively. During the Middle Ages, there evolved in falconry the social custom which we today refer to as the Laws of Ownership, by which birds of prey were allocated to a rank and a man could not hawk with a bird which had been allocated to a higher rank than himself. This hierarchy seems to have evolved mainly around the cost of the bird.
Royal Falconers were held in considerably high esteem. In Wales, the Master of the Hawks, or Penhebogyd as he was called, was fourth in rank from the king and was honored with certain privileges; his lands were held free, he could bring his own cup to the king's table, although he wasn't allowed to drink more than enough to quench his thirst in case he neglected his hawks in his drunkenness, and he was allowed the heart and lungs of all animals in the Royal kitchen. Whenever his hawks caught a heron, bittern or crane, three of the noblest species of game, the Prince would honor him by holding his horse for him while he took the hawks from the game, by holding his stirrup on remounting and, at night, by serving him three times with his own hands.
As the more efficient and novel methods of killing animals for both sport and table were introduced and farmlands became fenced in to improve agriculture falconry gradually lost its popularity. By the end of the 18th Century it had already become something of a rarity to see a trained falcon at work in the British countryside. Various hawking clubs were formed to rally members keen to continue their sport, but by the mid-19th Century subscription costs had risen so high that falconry became accessible only to the wealthy classes. Nowadays, however, hawking and falconry clubs exist to help amateur falconers pursue their sport in whatever capacity their time and income permits and the elitist picture is changing. Falconry, however, as a field sport, albeit the most natural of ones, is under constant pressure from an anti-hunting lobby and therefore its continuance will always remain at risk.