MASTER AND APPRENTICE Master falconer John Deasy (left) at Westport House with Leo Doherty and their Peregrine Falcon. Pics: Neill O'Neill.
Falconers in full flight
AN offer from a friend to experience falconry set in train a series of life-changing events for Leo Doherty from Castlebar, events that culminated in him opening a new falconry centre on the sprawling Mount Falcon Estate outside Ballina with master falconer Jason Deasy.
Deasy, from Errew near Ballintubber, has been practising falconry for six years. The duo are currently doing a daily Birds of Prey show in the farmyard at Westport House, where they display a range of birds, including a Harris Hawk, a Barn Owl, Peregrine Falcon and ‘Gandalf’ the Great Grey Owl.
Both men are extremely passionate about their birds, though they say that while they love their work, it requires a very high level of commitment, as the birds need daily care.
“It is a seven-days-a-week job. You have to weigh your birds and note how they fly on certain weights, and you have to put in the work with them. It is so heavily licensed, you can’t just get your neighbour to feed the birds, you need a falconer to do it. You need specialist training, and we are regulated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service,” Doherty stated.
Jason Deasy’s impressive knowledge of birds was gained at The Irish School of Falconry in Ashford Castle.
“I worked in Ashford Castle for five years, that is where I learned my trade, with James Knight. Then myself and Leo decided to do our own thing, and we opened up the falconry in Mount Falcon,” he explains. “It is a beautiful estate, and every time we go out there is quite a lot of action. It is a year-round job, and we also do displays for weddings and corporate events. The reaction has been great, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, when a hawk is flying into your glove for the first time there is a real thrill factor.”
For Leo, a career as a falconer was certainly not planned.
“Two years ago I went out with Jason and got addicted to it. Every day is different. I didn’t know what this was two years ago, never mind to think that I would end up doing it full time, but from the first second a Harris Hawk landed on my hand, I knew I had to get into it. The amount of commitment it requires is massive, but I really enjoy it,” he revealed.
“About nine out of ten people who take up falconry quit, as it is so intense. There is so much to it, and it is a steep learning curve at the beginning.”
Jason states that falconry is the oldest known sport, practised in this country for thousands of years.
“People have been doing falconry in Ireland for centuries. The first written record comes from the 12th century, when the King of Tara had hunting hawks, but archaeological remains of hawks have been found in human settlements going back to 3,000 BC. In Ireland, we used to trade war horses and hawks and falcons with the Romans. There is a huge history of falconry in Ireland, and over 100 phrases in the english language come from falconry alone.”
Both Jason and Leo wear traditional tweed falconer uniforms, which they say have been worn by falconers for hundreds of years in Europe.
“It is important to us to keep up the tradition and hand it down to the next generation in the same, if not better condition, it was given to us in,” says Jason.
Today, birds of prey are used to deter pest birds away from airports, landfill sites, vineyards and a range of other places, including Wimbledon. A falconer flies birds to keep away the pigeons at London’s Trafalgar Square. At Westport House, the other local birds are not long scattering once the Peregrine Falcon is released.
In their show at Westport House, the audience gets up close with a Harris Hawk, a Barn Owl, a Great Grey Owl and the world’s fastest bird – the Peregrine Falcon.
“The Harris Hawk is not native to Ireland, it comes from the Americas, anywhere from Colorado to Ecuador,” explained Jason. “They are the only social bird of prey used in falconry, and they are the most popular one used today, as they are very clever and can work in groups.
“The Barn Owl is indigenous. Unfortunately there are only 200 breeding pairs left in the wild in Ireland, because of the misuse of rodenticide. We use the barn owl in the display to attempt to educate people on the misuse of rodenticide and how they can look to switch that around. If what we do can take away some of the mystery from birds of prey, particularly with children who will grow up respecting the birds, then that is a great outcome.”
Gandalf, the Great Grey Owl (pic below), is undoubtedly one of their star attractions.
“They are a very unusual looking bird with their huge face,” says Jason. “An owl is a raptor, and technically is not a bird of prey. They sit and listen, sometimes for two weeks, then they hear something, swoop down and grab it, and then go and sit in a tree for another week.”
Jason and Leo get their birds from licensed Irish breeders, and will have ten in their falconry by the end of this summer season.
“When I was a kid, my uncles used to take me out hunting after rabbits and from there I had an interest in it,” says Jason.
“I went travelling came back and saw an opportunity to pursue it at at Ashford Castle with James and Deborah Knight, who run the Ireland School of Falconry there.
“They are very experienced falconers, and I was lucky enough to get into a position where there was eight different people, including ecologists, biologists and zoologists, working on a team, so I learnt a lot very quickly.”
Jason explains that you can’t domesticate a bird of prey. “They are wild birds that have learnt that by being around humans they will always be successful … by itself in the wild the bird only has a one in five chance of succeeding and catching prey.”
If one of his birds were to fly off, Jason states that they would survive very well in the wild, as they are very good predators. However, they all have radio telemetry to track them.
Leo has no regrets about the journey the last two years has taken him on.
“You cannot succeed at falconry unless you are incredibly passionate about it,” he adds.
“It will wear you down and the time and commitment it requires are intense, but it is addictive and very interesting.”
WISE OLD BIRD Gandalf, the Great Grey Owl.