Meet the creator: Grant Fear, Woodland Hawking
3 October 2019 / Meet the Creator /
A close encounter with a spectacular bird of prey is an astonishing moment that can stay with you forever, especially as we rarely see wild creatures these days. That’s why The Grove offer Woodland Hawking experiences all year round for anyone 3 upwards. Here we talk to the man behind the glove, Grant Fear, as he shares his passion for the majestic sport of falconry.
Which species of birds can guests meet during displays at The Grove?
Peregrine, Gyr x Sakers, European kestrels, Harris hawks, lanner falcons and a barn owl… We show about six birds outside The Glasshouse while guests are having breakfast, then we move along to the presentation lawn to fly a few of them. This is an enchanting experience for the guests.
We also deliver displays for corporate events at The Grove.
Private hawking walks are available all year round: these are delivered in the woods where a Harris Hawk follows you flying from tree to tree, to hand and back to the tree again. I did this for a mother and daughter from Ireland yesterday and they were blown away.
How do you train a bird of prey?
Falconry is all about what you do in the first year of training. You’ve got to train them from 10 weeks old when their feathers ‘hard pen’ which is the term we use for when the blood in the feathers turns hard and they can learn to fly. It takes 5 days a week for 1 year to train it well. The more you fly them, the more they learn to deal with wind, rain, other predators like herons, sparrowhawks, red kites buzzards, crows and seagulls. These other birds are curious – they’ll meet up in the air and have a little cat fight with their talons out to have a swipe, like a handbag fight! After a while the falcon learns that it’s the top gun, so if this happens when they’re on display it doesn’t worry them.
Training is based on mutual commitment, trust and respect. The aim is to get a bird to fly 200-300ft above me then stoop down in a teardrop shape for the lure. I reward the bird when it does well, but if it just flies off and sits in a tree, I make it work harder for the lure. The lure is on a bit of string which you can swing vertically in a circle and pull away. If the bird touched the lure, it’s won the game.
Can guests have a go?
Yes, guests can wear a glove along with my apprentice; the bird can fly back and fourth between the two. Children as young as three or four years old can do this, and, although the thrill can feel a little frightening, afterwards their overwhelming feeling is a sense of achievement.
How did you end up in falconry and at The Grove?
I used to be a fashion photographer living in Soho and New York and then decided I wanted to get out to the country. So I moved to Watford as is was only half an hour from London. I got myself a mentor, bought my first sparrowhawk and spent about 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, flying it. That was 7 years ago. I bought 2 canal boats, one for me and the other beside it for my falcons. I was known as the bird man on the canal and the canal was on The Grove’s estate. I was flying my birds in the woods and got talking regularly to a man and his son, who turned out to be the general manager. And so our partnership began!
What or who inspired you to work with birds?
My mum said I was always happiest in the garden in my pram, just being outside. We always went on holiday to Wales and Scotland and I loved seeing the nature there. The catalyst was a very powerful moment when a harris hawk flew onto my hand, and I said to myself, one day I’ll own one of these. It was just a question of when.
I’ve just bred my first falcons – that’s the pinnacle of falconry for me. It’s a responsible task incubating the eggs, hatching them and then rearing the chicks.
They don’t see another falcon until they’re 8 weeks old so they think I’m their parent, and once they get to three years old they see me as their lover – the trick is to get them to bow and lift their tale to be artificially inseminated.
What was the first bird you trained?
Rock steady Eddie, a male Harris Hawk.
Have you read any books or seen any films about nature which you can recommend?
I found Kes a bit depressing to be honest – I only saw the film, but I can strongly recommend The Last Wolf Hawker by Martin Hollinshead and The Reminiscences of a Falconer by Major Charles Hawkins Fisher. Also, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho – because you’re already sitting on the treasure, you make it where you are.