Saturday, December 21, 2013

Of Colonel Thornton and inedible quarry

My circle of friends has been talking about hunting predators, something I was for a long time reluctant to do for reasons (it now seems) I had not thought out. While I think all quarry should be treated with respect, a coyote skin or a big carnivore skull can be a magical object-- as can a plume from a catch and release heron caught by a falcon in the last days of the old- fashioned air battles described below. We are not  going to talk here about why some predators MUST be killed in bad situations, as Cat has covered that subject better than I could hope to. Also, I think that predators capable of killing humans should be kept polite, and hunting enforces manners on everyone. The predators become wary of humans, and those who follow them must respect their quarry, and  learn more than any mere observer, to be successful.

Much as I love and enjoy food, I wonder if, especially for nuevo hunters, the prejudice against hunting predators has both class and utilitarian connotations. In America, such things as predator calling are considered blue- collar and "redneck". Meanwhile, our educated ruling class culture is still touched with Puritanism: if you can't EAT it, it is of no use. I could veer off now into tales of stir fried chile ginger mountain lion and such, but thought instead I will come at it from another angle, maybe more amusing.

The zenith of falconry is probably the aerial battle, extending over miles, with large, high- flying , often dangerous- to- the- hawks quarry: the largest herons, cranes, and (most difficult if not most dangerous) at one of two species of high- flying, agile scavenging raptors, the red and black kites (Milvus). Emperor Frederic II hunted all three in the south of Italy in the early 1200's, and the Craighead brothers may have seen the last of it in India just before WW II; they were both the first, and so far the last and only, to film the kite flight. Despite the dubious utility of the quarry (most contemporary sources advise substituting pigeon meat for the bird's reward before the falcon tastes it!), the flight was  dramatic and protracted; the seemingly endless series of stoops and evasions could go on for six miles. It was probably loss of land that did it in in Europe, even for emperors.

Colonel Thomas Thornton of Thornville royal (1757- 1823) was one of those larger than life humans that drive some people to madness while delighting others. The short version: Colonel Thornton was the last modern WESTERN master of the gyr until Ronald Stevens in Ireland and the westerners of my generation who hunt the Big Sage. Rich, profligate, arrogant and funny, he squandered a fortune, lived long, drank "like a hero", dressed his mistress as a jockey, put her on his horses and bet on her in the races, then horsewhipped a cur who insulted her in the stands. He loved gyrs and greyhounds, and died old and content in Paris, having spent all his money.

He wrote two good books, his Northern Tour, which I have, and one with at least as good a reputation about a French "expedition", which I have never seen. (Expedition? He traveled with nearly the baggage of Emperor Frederic; a contemporary journalist described his caravan: "Fourteen servants with hawks on their wrists, ten hunters, a pack of stag hounds and lap- dog beagles, and a brace of wolves formed the advance guard. Two brace of pointers, and thrice as many greyhounds in rich buff and blue sheets, with armorial bearings, followed in their train.")

But the point of all this was that he was among the last westerners to pursue the kite, with a cast of gyrs at that. His amusement with the middle- class practicality of a guest who could not appreciate the high art of the flight at the kite comes across the centuries.

"The southern [meaning south of the borders between England and Scotland] gentlemen, particularly those in the vicinity of the metropolis, never see game of any kind without expressing, instantaneously, their inclinations for a roast... every alderman expresses, on occasion, the same emotions... A Mr. A A, attended by a little humpback servant with a large portmanteau, joined our party, ranging for kite near Eden Gap. At length one was seen in the air, and I ordered the owl flown.[ Eagle owls are hated and 'mobbed' by other birds, and one abroad by day will lure an angry kite-- SB] He came, as we wished, at a proper distance. The day was fine, and the hawks, especially Javelin and Icelanderkin, in the highest order, and with them Crocus, a favorite slight falcon. [ Peregrine--SB] Never was there a finer day, keener company, or, for six miles or more, a finer flight. When he was taken, in an extacy [sic] I asked Mr A how he liked kite hawking. He replied, with a sort of hesitation that implied but small pleasure, 'Why, pretty well.' We then tried for hare, with a famous hawk called Sans Quartier. After ranging a little, we found one, and in about two miles, killed it. Mr A coming up again slowly, unwilling or unable to leave his portmanteau, I repeated my former question; and though the flight of a hare is fine, yet, being in no way equal to that of a kite, was surprised to see his countenance brighten up, and to hear him express himself with uncommon pleasure. 'Ay,  that '  he said 'was a nobler kind of hawking; the hare would be of use--a good roast-- the kite of none."

He hardly needed to add: "I leave every sportsman to guess the observations that were made by a set of lively young men on the occasion."

Thornton with Gyr and greyhound; and his 16- bore double muzzle- loading gun, which resides on extended loan in the Archives of Falconry in Boise Idaho. Its owner, in England, has tempted me by offering to let me shoot it if I get up there, but though I have written about it, I doubt it will be easy to convince its guardians. Probably made in the late 1700's and converted to percussion, it last killed partridge in the 1980's... that is nine teen!

Finally, what may be the best painting Joseph Wolf ever did- and puzzling because he lived a bit late for seeing the almost medieval flight outside of Asia: a red kite brought down by a cast of gyrs:


Anonymous said...

Ah, that made my day. Great piece. Put me in mind of this fine song in honor of Thornton: "I'm a Man you Don't Meet Every Day"

(Dubliners version; The Pogues do a very pretty one, but screw up the line about taking the dog out shooting — urbanites!)

Jim Cornelius

Guy Boyd said...

You are on target with your "class and utilitarian" observations. Many years ago I wrote an article on coyote hunting which was published by Peterson's. Thereafte I was confronted with the "I only shoot what I'm going to eat" and "I don't kill for the sake of killing" Puritans. When I responded with "I don't kill for the sake of killing, but I do hunt for the sake of hunting",I still got accusing looks and denigrating grunts by admitting that I enjoyed hunting.Any discussion of engagement, sensuality, and enjoyment was off- limits, discarded without discourse.

I think falconry has always been seen differently by a majority of practioners and observers. the gut churning thrill of un-imaginable aerial feats surpases all but a few reservations.

Peculiar said...

Jim, what's your source for the Thornton connection in that song? I actually researched it a bit, since I was perplexed about the dog-shooting lyric. As far as I could tell, there seemed to be a lot of uncertainty about the origins of the song, including whether it was originally Scottish or Irish, whether it was genuinely traditional or more recently composed. I saw at one claim that it began as a music hall song and the dog-shooting is mockery of an Irish bumpkin character; definitely not sure I buy that, though. In any case, the dog-shooting version significantly pre-dates the Pogues' recording, though most groups that record it go with outwardly sensible feel-good option. If you know more about it, I remain curious.

Anonymous said...


Sorry if I sent you on a goose chase. I only meant to say that the song puts me in mind of Thornton (or vice-versa). I immediately slapped it on after reading the post. Sloppy writing.

Jock Stewart, that canny gun man reminds me of all the Thorntons of the world, god love ’ em. Interesting that the dog-shooting lyric predates The Pogues. You now know way more about the song than I do. Love pulling on the string of these "oldies" — they always cast up interesting stories and interpretations.

Jim Cornelius

Peculiar said...

No worries, Jim, I was just hoping you knew something I didn't! But you've got me singing it for the last 24 hours - if I give the dog a pass it's certainly cheery enough for Christmas.