“You don’t do that, do you?’’
I Once sat at a table with some well known British falconers, purists from ‘Ye Olde Skool of Fauconrie’- you know the type, and when I happened to mention that my female redtail was catching rabbits both day and night. I couldn’t believe the reaction it got, ‘It’s unnatural’, ‘hawks shouldn’t fly at night’, ‘that’s not cricket’. Luckily for me nobody was armed, the fact we had just finished a conversation about another traditional past time; adultery, didn’t seem to bother them at all.
Lamping with a hawk does seem to be a controversial subject, it is
unnatural, it is definitely not cricket, but it can be very fruitful. The only argument against lamping with hawks that I do agree with is that the flights are not as spectacular as daytime flights. You lose a lot of the excitement of the hunt; the hawk will either catch its prey or return to you for the next try. If you do it for pest control reasons, though, the purists don’t seem to mind as much. So I suppose it’s all right to do it - once you don’t have any fun!
There is a lot to be said in favour of lamping. Most ordinary people have ordinary jobs, so when winter arrives and they have no daylight hours at home, what happens to the birds? You could do as the purists above do and let the birds sit on their perch until the days grow longer or you could fly them in the evenings with the lamp – which would the bird prefer? When winter arrives, rabbits can be very hard to find, with nights being so long, the few that have survived have no reason to be out and about during the day, they naturally prefer the comfort of darkness. So, unless you use ferrets or have a good hawking dog to flush them from cover, you will be buying a lot of your hawk food. I lamp to feed my motley carnivorous menagerie (that includes the kids) and to keep neighbouring landowners happy, after all they don’t begrudge me the odd pheasant.
A farmer next to me had a visit from another neighbour to overlook his crops, apparently (and I have only discovered this recently) they view each other’s cattle and crops in the same way as pigeon fanciers or
falconers like to show off their birds. Anyway, while they were sizing up the crops, the visitor asked why there was so little crop damage and so few rabbits on the farm. He was then told about my nocturnal activities with hawks, dogs and lamp and how I, on the wettest, wildest winter nights, venture out under cover of darkness to save his crops from the ravaging hoards. Arriving home with bags full of rabbits and pigeons and other crop eating vermin. Slight exaggeration on his part, but I didn’t let on. Now the interesting bit, the second farmer asked, if it wasn’t too much trouble, would I come and lamp his
on land too!
Weather conditions are very important. Traditionally the lamper was accompanied by a dog and carried out his activities on the blackest, windiest nights, while sane folk barricade themselves indoors in front of the television and a warm fire. There is no point venturing out when there is a large moon as the rabbits will be watching your approach and act accordingly, the same goes for a windless night as you will be heard even before you enter the field. Conditions are only slightly different when using a hawk. Rain, which doesn’t matter to the dog enthusiast,
will have your hawk feeling miserable in no time and you will find yourself
trudging home through the mud, reaching for the hair dryer to save your bird from pneumonia. If the wind is too high it can be a nuisance to the hawker. A hawk cannot be expected to fly up-windanywhere near the speed of a running rabbit and as you should not approach directly down wind for obvious reasons, something less than a gale is preferable. One friend, that regularly lamps his goshawk, reckons that when the wind is too strong, if she doesn’t hit the rabbit by the first turn, that’s it, the rabbit is away home.
Redtails, both males and females are commonly flown at rabbits; one particular male was known locally as the ‘stealth bomber’ because all his missions were at night! Goshawks have successfully been flown at rabbit and pigeon, I regularly use my female sparrowhawk to catch feral pigeons in sheep houses and grain stores and the little musket has been used in the same buildings after sparrows. Ferruginous hawks, ignored and underrated by many could easily be put to good use, particularly the males, which are usually overlooked by most people when choosing a hunting bird. As far as I know they are as yet untried at night.
By far the commonest bird used for lamping is the Harris hawk. They take to it so naturally, a couple of nights of additional training, throwing food into the beam and recalling to the fist and you should be ready to go. The female is the better choice for rabbits, not as fast as the smaller male over a short distance, but strong enough to hold every rabbit. Goshawks and redtails will catch rabbits at night and do it with more style and flair than a Harris, but their ‘give it all you got’ attitude, which works so well in the daytime, could lead them into trouble at night. The easy going style of the Harris suits night flying, where the gos or redtail fly directly at the rabbit, negotiating fencing and barbed wire on the way, the Harris will usually float up, follow the rabbit from above and wait it’s chance to strike. This is a very effective technique and much safer. The mother of my female is a master at this style of flying. If a rabbit is spotted, she will leave her owner’s fist, disappear from view and won’t enter the beam of light until she hits the rabbit, striking it from above. The only thing the Harris hawk has going against it is those perfect, unbreakable feathers tend to soak up water like a sponge. After a couple of hits or misses
when the ground is wet, her tail and wing tips will be soaked and she will tire more quickly.
Another form of lamping I enjoy is catching wood pigeons in the trees. The local farmers usually supply cartridges to shooters to keep pigeons off their crops, so they are delighted. The bird for this job is a male Harris hawk, he is smaller and quicker through the trees and flying up at steep angles, 30 or 40 feet at a time is harder work for the bigger female. When a hawk is used for both rabbits and pigeons they will often refuse rabbits if they hear the easier option noisily leaving the trees, so it is better, if you can, to keep one bird for one job. When in search of pigeons you will need wind, and lots of it, pitch black and gale force are the perfect conditions. When the winds are high the pigeons will
roost lower down in the trees. They don’t like to be blown around on the
swaying tops and look for a more sheltered spot lower down. The wind will also cover the sound of your approach and if there is light enough to see you, the pigeons will find a safer refuge. When I am planning to fly the male at pigeons I usually put his weight up quite high; this is for a couple of reasons. Unlike day hawking there are no distractions. When he is on the fist all he can see is what is in the beam, and if he misses his quarry all I do is shine the beam on my fist for his return. Another reason for not having him too low is that when he catches a pigeon he could also have a handful of branches as well, if he is too anxious to get a meal he will hang on for dear life. This usually means upside down, 40 foot up a tree, in the middle of a wood, in the middle of the night. Catching pigeons is what he likes to do and during last winter this one bird caught enough food to feed my family and other animals for weeks on end. This is not an exaggeration; I did say lamping could be very fruitful.
The equipment used is fairly simple; it has to be, because if it goes wrong you’re stuck out there in the dark, and if you've ever been lost in the countryside without even the lights of a distant house as a landmark you know how dark dark can get. You could do what I once done, and walk for over an hour in the wrong direction! The lamp is a 12v lamp with both full and dipped beams, the dip being used to recall the bird to the glove. The battery is a small 12v dry cell like a house alarm battery. The dry cell fits into a small bag held on the belt and leaves room to carry a small rucksack for quarry.
Telemetry is a must, but bells can be a hindrance. Pigeons often fly just before a hawk reaches them, but this happens too often if the hawk is wearing bells. Rabbits too can hear them coming and turn at the last second. My Harris’s wear a second, very small anklet above the normal anklet on one leg, the bell is attached to this with a small cable tie and can be clipped off for lamping or replaced for daytime hawking. At night kills are usually made in sight of the falconer so it’s not a big deal to fly without bells. Telemetry is a different story, if a hawk is on a kill at night and you can't find her, she could be in trouble. A fox won’t miss many fresh kills and if your hawk happens to be standing on it, well you can imagine the rest. Foxes can also be a danger when your hawk catches a
rabbit, as they know well the squealing of a rabbit in trouble and usually come running to administer the coup de grace, a spotlight won't be enough deter a fox about to grab his dinner.
Some people still believe that the beam of light dazzles the rabbits and you can just pick them up. These people always refuse an invitation to see for themselves, I think they are afraid to get their waxed jackets wet. A night out with a hawk and lamp can be very enjoyable - to watch the hawk as he tries to out-manoeuvre a rabbit. They know when to run and when to hide, where they're heading for and how to use
every obstacle and piece of cover on the way.
My favourite lamping story was told by a friend from the midlands, a well-known area for hunting, where wives sit patiently knitting and waiting for their beloved to return from the field. On this particular night our hero left his cottage and braved the freezing elements, fought the bitter winds and made his way to the leeward side of the hill, where the rabbits would be feeding, getting some shelter from the biting winds. After catching two or three rabbits he was returning home past what could only be described as mid-way between a pond and a swamp. A magpie, disturbed either by the cold or the crunching footsteps below, started to chatter and the brave little Harris took off in pursuit. On goes the beam just in time to illuminate the hawk catching the magpie and both falling to the ground, well they never got to the ground because they ended up in the middle
of the frozen pond/swamp, on thin ice. What to do? Never one to lose his head this falconer spied a branch lying across the quagmire and decided to tiptoe out far enough to reach the hawk. As you have probably guessed, the branch broke and he found himself up to the knees in frozen water. Undaunted, he spied a much bigger branch growing from the opposite bank, if he could belly crawl, with lamp in one hand, out far
enough, he just might be able to reach his hawk. This big branch growing out across the pond had given up growing years before, and with an almighty crack deposited our hero, complete with hawking bag, lamp and battery, up to his neck in freezing cold water. This did not have a positive effect on the battery, and as he plunged into the swamp, he was also plunged into complete darkness. He felt around in the water, found his hawk (which was also drenched and frozen but still clinging to the magpie), dragged himself out of the water and trudged the remaining miles home. He told me this story over the phone, and his parting
words were "and the women think we're out enjoying ourselves!"
So as you can see, lamping might not be the ideal way to fly your hawk, but which would you choose? Do as the purists would have us do and leave the bird to stagnate on a perch, waiting for longer days, or charge up your battery?
Tommy Byrne. 2003