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The Notebook

Curious pets often have the most interesting owners

When she stumbled across a woman walking her ferrets in the UK, Jacci Babich never imagined she'd end up getting an education in falconry

18 February 2018 - 00:00 By Jacci Babich

Enjoying a holiday stroll through the picturesque village of Whittlesford in the UK, my eyes positively popped at the sight of two young girls going "walkies" with the weirdest looking "puppies" ever.
Thank goodness I stopped to ask about these amazing creatures, resplendent in matching red harnesses and leads, or I would have missed one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.
"They're ferrets and they're not only tame, they're also accomplished," one of the girls said. "They've been bred to go hunting."
"Hunting what?" I asked.
"Rabbits. We use them to bolt rabbits - that is, chase them out of their holes - so our hawks can hone their hunting skills."
The random encounter took me to local falconer Stuart Fall, who talked to me for ages about his fascinating sport. He even offered to show me a training session.
"We use special kites to train falcons," said Stuart as he tied a lure of chicken meat to a slip line at the base of the kite. Then he launched it into the air, paying out the line attached to a heavy winch.
Falcons are around £1,000 apiece so the bird, Cleo, not only had bells on her legs but could also be tracked via a transmitter attached to her back.
I watched as Stuart removed Cleo's leather hood and released the jess (leg strap.) She took joyous flight, soaring overhead in vast circles, growing smaller and smaller until she was just a speck in the sky."Any freefalling parachutist who thinks he has reached terminal velocity at 195km/h should think again," grinned my new friend.
"Cleo would pass them with ease. In the stoop [drop for prey] they can fall 30m a second. The record for the fastest stoop is an incredible 389km/h."
Higher and higher went Cleo until she "caught" her garnished lure and plummeted to earth. Beak slightly open, panting from her exertions, she rested a minute or two before tucking into her booty.
As we talked, I learned that traditionally, knaves were only allowed to hunt with kestrels. A yeoman could train a goshawk. Ladies were allowed merlins.
Only a king could hunt with the biggest birds, such as eagles and gyrfalcons.
• 'The Notebook' is about chance meetings and unforgettable encounters people have had on their travels. Send us your story - no more than 400 words - and, if published, you'll receive R500. Mail travelmag@sundaytimes.co.za with the word Notebook in the subject line...

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