Penryn College celebrates 15 years of falconry

BY STEVEN VAN RENSBURG

Penryn College is situated on the Boschrand Hills overlooking Mbombela (Nelspruit, Mpumalanga Province) and the Crocodile River Valley.

In this peaceful and beautiful environment, our scholars embrace an ethos of holism, which requires them to be excellent at something and good at many things. Penryn College is one of three schools in southern Africa that offers falconry as an extracurricular activity – the other two being Falcon College and Peter House in Zimbabwe. Falconry was first introduced to Penryn College by Ray Jansen in 2001. On his departure in 2002, I took charge of the falconry club.

Apprentices must be properly prepared

The Penryn College library houses a number of excellent books on falconry, and pupils who are drawn to falconry through Penryn are encouraged to read as many of these books as they possibly can. As an alternative, social media can also be used as a tool to research the various aspects of falconry. There are certainly many reputable webpages and YouTube clips on the internet that will aid their understanding of falconry. After having extensively researched and read up on all the aspects of falconry, the pupil is then subjected to the first of two examinations. The first exam is a baseline assessment to assess what the pupil has learned and/or already knows about falconry.

A pass mark of 70% allows the novice entrance to the two-year apprentice programme. Apprentice falconers are advised to spend as much time as possible with active graded falconers. Here they experience firsthand what falconry is really all about. It is also at this point where they decide if falconry is for them or not. Once the apprentices has successfully completed the required two-year course, the second examination (C Grade) is written. A pass mark of 85% allows the apprentice to practise the ancient art of falconry, which includes housing and flying one of the C Grade birds (jackal buzzard or female African goshawk). The qualifying course is intense and designed to produce an individual dedicated to the well-being of the bird entrusted to the falconer. Upon graduating to C Grade status, the falconer automatically becomes affiliated to the Mpumalanga Falconry Club and the South African Falconry Association (SAFA).1

A unique relationship between man and bird

Although many people frown upon falconry on the grounds that it is considered a blood sport and that the falcons are kept tethered for lengthy periods,2 I believe it embodies a unique relationship between human, bird and often dog, where the falconer has a brief insight into the splendour of birds of prey, the tactical evasive techniques of their quarry and the enjoyment of outdoor experiences. It’s interesting to know that in 2016, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recognised falconry as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.3

An accomplished Penryn falconer must have the knowledge and the experience to provide his/her bird with the best possible environment, housing, food and equipment, as well as healthcare. The falconer is expected to be au fait with the biological interactions between predator and prey and the approach of sustainable utilisation of wild game species. The student thus becomes an ecologist and an environmentalist with “hands-on” experience. The educational spin-offs are immense to the students, their peers and surrounding community. Penryn College falconry birds are often acquired through the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Authority (MTPA),4 local veterinarians and rehabilitation centres. These birds are often released after a season’s “hawking”, when they are able to integrate successfully into the wild and have gained experience in hunting techniques and fitness necessary to survive environmental stress.

Ongoing research

Penryn falconers are actively involved in monitoring various raptor species found in the Lowveld. Species monitored annually include: African crowned eagle (42 nesting sites) Black sparrowhawk (12 nesting sites) African peregrine falcon (28 nesting sites) Black eagle (four nesting sites) Lanner falcon (nine nesting sites) Ayres hawk eagle (intra-African non-breeding migrant). Monitoring the various local populations includes the following criteria: status (common/uncommon), habitat (mountain, forest, cities etc.), habits (solitary/gregarious), food (caught and eaten/brought to the nest), and breeding (season/incubation/nestlings).

Life after Penryn (post matric)

Most Penryn falconers who study at universities in South Africa have gained acceptance into courses such as zoology and veterinary science. Falconers who are less academically inclined have qualified for work at various falconry centres, local and abroad,or register for the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA)5 courses. Some of these falconers, too, have gone on to study later on and have qualified as zoologists/ ecologists.

I’d like to leave the last words to some of our Penryn falconers: “When I arrived at Penryn College as a naive Grade 8 student, I had absolutely no idea what the future held for me until I was introduced to falconry. I quickly learned, though, that falconry was more than just falconry, more than just training, flying and hunting with a hawk. I learned that keeping a hawk in pristine condition was sometimes more difficult than actually flying and hunting it. Keeping a hawk is not a ‘weekend thing’ where a bird can be left to its own devices till Friday, but a disciplined, regimental 24/7 job.

Birds have to be fed, manned and housed in a secure environment every day. Equipment needs to be checked regularly, so does the condition of the bird. If a bird is left to its own devices, the falconer won’t have any connection with it (bird) and not pick up on any health issues or preempt equipment failure. In short, it teaches the falconer responsibility, accountability, patience and trust. Falconry at Penryn College blessed with me life-long friendships. My appreciation of others stems from my willingness to accept individual differences. My attempts at gaining the trust and acceptance of the birds I fly, has spilled over into my relationships with others within my community and at university.” Richard Hay, Post matric 2014 “Learning falconry at Penryn has done many things for me, such as giving me a huge amount of knowledge of the bush which includes being able to identify hundreds of different species of both bird and mammals and also to just have a break from a hectic school life.”

Ryan Schreuder, Grade 11 2017 “I am so grateful I found this calling and pursued falconry. It feels magical and primal, an alchemy few of us get to take part in anymore. It’s a feeling that you need to go out of your way to find and then work your tail off to be part of, but because of it I feel a few inches taller when my bird is on my fist. More than just the huge responsibility of looking after a bird of prey I have learned dedication, perseverance and tolerance. From the start of my falconry journey, I have made lifelong friends and have met enthusiastic and influential fellow falconers. I have always had a passion and love for wild life and with this added experience and meeting people I feel that it could only help further my career in preservation of wild life. I hope I am able to do this for the rest of my life.” Joshua Hoekstra, Grade 11 2017 

References:

1. See: http://safalconry.org/?i=1.

2. See, for example: http://www.ifaw.org/united-states/news/photography-contestignores-

cruel-reality-falconry.

3. See: http://www.mtpa.co.za/index.php?home.

4. See: http://www.fgasa.co.za/.

5. See: https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/falconry-a-living-human-heritage-01209.

 

 

Category: Winter 2017

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