As I came around the corner from the gents’ lavatory, head down, concentrating on rebuttoning my flies, a manual skill I’ve yet to master completely, I accidentally barged into a man with a hawk perched on his arm. He was a calm, friendly man of about my age. His hawk was magnificently liveried in brown and black. It was a male Harris hawk. The man stroked the bird and spoke kindly to it to reassure it. Did he hunt with it? I asked. Well, he was only two years old, he said, and he’d been ill for a long time. But he was thinking of trying it on rabbits.
I’d once seen a Harris hawk being flown at rabbits. Pressing home a furious attack, the hawk pursued a retreating rabbit right down a hole and got stuck about a foot underground. It tried to fly back out, but each time it opened its wings it became more wedged in. The bird didn’t have the sense to keep its wings folded and walk out. I was ferreting the hedge with the late Mr Mark Allen, a well-known ferreting man, at the time. The deadly intent of the hawk’s swooping attack, and its impotent rage at finding itself stuck in a hole, made us laugh. Mr Allen said it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen.
The gents’ lavatory outside which we had collided was in the grounds of an animal-rescue centre. It was their annual open day. I was a visitor and the chap with the hawk was there with his falconry club, he said, which was putting on an exhibition.
I warned him not to broadcast his intention too widely as the women that run the place are implacably opposed to hunting of any sort.