The ancient art of falconry on the Jersey coast

In 2010, UNESCO first added falconry to its “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list, calling it “an ancient drama”. Since then, according to McNeff, the international falconry community has carefully distinguished between falconry and combat to protect the UNESCO-recognized version of the sport, which is in line with NAFA’s ethical policy; it says that falconry “should not include keeping birds of prey as pets or items of prestige.” That’s because in recent years, especially in Europe, groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have criticized the use of birds of prey for “shows” or “demonstrations.” On its UK website, PETA states: “Falconers treat birds of prey, such as falcons, owls and eagles, as living props and display them for tourists. Tied to a log of wood with a short leather strap for hours or even days, their lives are one of boredom and torment.”

For the gulls, however, the current five hawks, 12 falcons and Swanson’s Eurasian eagle-owl are much better than the typical alternative. In 2021 alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture killed 17,633 gulls in the name of conservation, along with 2,664 hawks, 510 falcons and 359 owls. “You come in here and take out 20,000 seagulls — well, that’s 20,000 less birds to clean the beach,” Swanson says. “Everything is here for a reason.” One of those reasons, says Amanda Rodewald, an avian biologist at Cornell University, is the presence of humans, whether you like it or not. “Connections are complicated,” she says. “When removing one species, it can be difficult to predict what the consequences will be for others in that system — we don’t know which species will one day be valuable to us.”

The use of raptors to mistreat pesky birds seem to have been invented by the British military in the 1940s at an airbase in Scotland, where peregrine falcons, making dive speeds of nearly 200 mph the world’s fastest animals, were used to chase gulls down runways. Over the following decades, the practice spread to culling herring and ring-billed gulls from a Canadian garbage dump, wood pigeons from an English field planted with cabbage and Brussels sprouts, even crows from the Kremlin. Thomas L. Freeman, a math and science professor at Eastern New Mexico University-Ruidoso who studies diurnal raptors, told me that hawks and falcons are so effective because they’re unpredictable in ways that artificial deterrents can’t be. “You can turn off scarecrows, and they work for a while,” he says. “But with birds of prey, the animals they go after will perceive real danger, dynamic danger.”

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