For most of us, our introduction to hunting usually comes about from fleeting exposure from a magazine article or TV show that piques our interest or perhaps we were lucky enough to have a friend or a family member who is already a hunter. The majority take it up passively and revisit it from time to time as work, family and dare I say it, as finance priorities permit. It takes a certain individual to keep it at the forefront of their daily lives and throughout their lives and so for some it becomes a passing interest we did once and got distracted by other things. For others, it becomes a lifelong obsession. My introduction was a bit different. I didn’t have any encouraging, supportive close family member, (quite the opposite actually), or any friend who was a hunter. No one in my family hunted or fished. I lived in a large seaside town on the south coast of England and my parents were hoteliers running a family-owned business that preoccupied all their time, hardly the environment for a budding field sportsman. The closest thing I had come to exploring nature was as a boy scout. As a young boy, I entertained myself by fishing a lot off the local pier throughout the year on weekends and school holidays. However, I can pinpoint the exact moment the hunting spark was ignited, and little did I know then, that it was to be the turning point in my life that would occupy most of my spare time, influencing my career choices, where we would live and later in life, initiate global travel and not one but two emigrations.
At the time I was only about 10 years of age and was spending the summer with my eldest sister and her young family in Wales. My brother-in-law was not a hunter, but he had a friend who owned a couple of air rifles, and they took me and their sons to a quarry to do some plinking. I immediately fell in love with shooting and spent the next few years exploring the outdoors and eventually saved up my paper round money to buy my own air rifle. It was soon apparent that I was born a rich person in a poor man’s body, cursed with good taste and no money. So as time passed, I saved up many pay checks and spent what was a small fortune back then to buy a fine 12-gauge Beretta over and under shotgun that I still own to this day. Initially, I participated heavily in competitive clay pigeon shooting through my late teenage years and if I say so myself, I became quite accomplished with it. In fact, my girlfriend at the time had a car and used to drive me to all the clay pigeon competitions on a Sunday where I proceeded to spend my entire weeks’ pay on entry fees and cartridges. In return, I would amass a few shelves full of plaques, crystal bowls, and cheap silverware awards but good shooting skills that would serve me well later hunting wild game. It was also around this time I got landowner permission on small farms to do some rough shooting hunting pigeons and rabbits. Through my contact with the gun shop, (where most of my money seemed to be going), I then was introduced to the gamekeeper of a local pheasant and partridge shooting estate where I volunteered as a beater. Aside from earning permission to keep wood pigeons and squirrel numbers down in the off-season with my air rifle, the end of pheasant shooting season beater days were our payback and a fantastic opportunity for me to experience higher levels of driven gamebird shooting. This naturally later gravitated to trips to Northeast Scotland for red grouse shooting and then a bit of deer stalking, all done on a shoestring budget.
At some point in my early to mid-teens I also became fascinated with raptors, reading many books borrowed from the local library often resulting in paying late fee fines that could amount to buying the book instead! A couple of years later when I was 16, I acquired a kestrel as my first bird which I flew for 2 years before losing it in a windstorm but I learned a lot in the meantime. My early falconry career didn’t end there, and I later obtained a common buzzard that I did catch a head or two of game with, more by luck than judgement. A short while later while volunteering at a local bird of prey centre, I finally got some guidance and support and obtained a much more difficult and harder-to-handle European sparrow hawk. This is when things really switched gears away from what was merely initially a higher form of pet keeping and I began catching lots of game and really started to practice falconry in its purest form and definition. Again, with no means to buy a car, I resorted to hunting in the local cemetery which fortunately was quite large, and I cringe now looking back at how inappropriate if not insensitive it was chasing blackbirds and starlings from bush to bush as some poor widow would be bent over tending her late husband’s grave just as a shrieking blackbird would crash into a nearby bush quickly followed by my sparrow hawk and then me. I recall using public transport to visit hunting friends with my hawk on my fist. Suffice to say my obsession with falconry and shooting became my sole focus as a young man and ultimately what brought me and my young family to emigrate to Canada.
Fast forward to my early 30’s long before the days of personal computers, I had corresponded by letter with a falconer whose name and details I got from an American falconry club magazine I had obtained. He wrote back telling me about falconry in Canada and the abundant game, ease of access and ability to legally take wild raptors from the wild. I was all set to pack my bags and leave on the spot after reading his letter, but that was not as easy or straightforward as I’d imagined. I still have that letter pressed between the pages of one of my early falconry books and Dale has since become a lifelong friend whom I still speak to every other week to this day. So began the 18-month struggle of trying to emigrate to Canada with my wife, our 3yr old daughter, two gundogs and 6 suitcases that eventually came to fruition in March of 1991. Credit to my chauffeuring girlfriend who later became my wife, (I knew I had a good thing), it was her occupation as an occupational therapist that got us into Canada. Canada immigration did not need yet another salesman, even though eventually it was my career that became the breadwinner and took us from province to province. We had never visited Saskatchewan before only what we read in brochures etc. since there was no internet back then. We will never forget that day we arrived off the plane in Saskatchewan on a bleak frigidly cold -15c day in March without a tree in sight and a vast bleak snow-swept landscape. What had we done I thought, is this what the north pole looks like?
As it turned out, while the motivation to emigrate was a little selfish this was also an opportunity to provide a better life for us all and it turned out to be the beginning of an amazing life not only for me but my family. Personally, it was the turning point in my hunting career and the beginning of a series of steep learning curves that helped develop my future as a true field sportsman. The falconry and hunting were incredible, and landowners didn’t even care if you went on their land. The general rule was if it isn’t posted “No Hunting” then you could hunt. So, with the help of my new neighbour 2 doors down who was a serious hunter, I went on to hunt big game like moose, elk, deer, bear and briefly cougars. I learned to reload my own ammunition and then took up bowhunting which today has come 2nd to my falconry followed by my lifelong love of shooting. It may be of interest to learn that falconry in both Canada and USA has a high percentage of female falconers particularly within the past 25 years. Similar can be said for big game hunting.
Unlike the UK, the wildlife in Canada belongs to “the people” not the landowner. The game populations are highly regulated, enforced and licenses are needed for all game species. For big game like moose or deer the land is divided into wildlife management units (WMU’s) and each species’ population are measured and there is an allotted number of tags available for that area. In most cases there is more demand than there are tags so there is a priority lottery draw system to get drawn for a tag. The percentage chance of winning will vary by region and game populations, and they are segregated by hunting methods such as archery, muzzleloader and rifle. Falconry for bird and small game hunting is also regulated with daily limits but since it is recognized there are relatively few licensed practitioners and their impact is negligible, there is no lottery etc. However, unlike the UK, to become a falconer you are required to undertake a 2yr apprenticeship course under the guidance of an experienced falconer. Back to big game each method and prey species has its own season and bag limits. If you are unsuccessful that year you are elevated to a higher priority level for the next so sooner than later, you do get drawn and the cost of the tag is around $40 or 25 quid.
As a result of this conservation program, the wild game populations remain robust and healthy. It is in fact illegal for a landowner to charge you to hunt on his land, but you do need his permission in order to do so. Providing respect is given towards livestock, closing gates behind you etc., most landowners are very generous and supportive, indeed they need help keeping animal populations on their land in check that can ruin crops etc. This means high-quality hunting is within the means of the majority of people, not just the wealthy, and our seasons vary from a few weeks to 7 months depending upon game species and regions you are hunting. I spent the first 15 years in Canada working and moving between three provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia and finally settling in Southern Alberta which provided the best possible hunting opportunity and balance for my family needs. I currently have permission and good relations with many landowners whose combined properties exceed 50,000 acres …and it’s all free, however, I maintain these relationships by dropping off a bottle of wine or deer sausage at Christmas as a token of my appreciation. I might add poaching is treated seriously in Canada and the consequences of abusing the generous seasons and bag limits are dealt with severely which can include loss of hunting privileges, heavy fines, confiscation of equipment used and even imprisonment for very serious cases.
I mentioned earlier that I had emigrated twice connected with hunting … and specifically falconry. The second time was much later in life while approaching middle age when I received an unusual and unexpected job offer that was too good to turn down. Keep in mind at this stage of our lives, we have adult children, established careers, a beautiful country home and circle of friends, as well as all the clutter of possessions that fills our lives accumulated over the years. Furthermore, our mindsets change, and we tend to be more inclined to settle and take an easier route to the hectic fast-paced life of early adulthood, so a huge life change like this was harder to do, particularly going to a country you don’t understand the language. Also keep in mind also that I’d spent the first 15 years in Canada moving between western provinces searching for the perfect place to live, hunt and provide for my family. So much to the dismay and disbelief of my fellow hunting friends, (but with my wife’s support) we both took a huge leap of faith and went to live and work in the middle east. The job offer came through contacts and friends within the falconry community who reached out to me to ask if I would represent their Radio Telemetry company in the gulf region which represented 85% of their global sales at the time. Essentially, I was selling and servicing radio tracking devices to Arab falconers so they could recover their prized falcons in the event they were lost while hunting quarry.
So would begin an incredible adventure that would take me hunting in Africa, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and most of the gulf Arab countries like Saudi, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and UAE. Many of my clients were Sheikhs or Royal Family members and wealthy business leaders. However, since I was a falconer myself and wasn’t just another salesman touting for their business, we shared a common passion and they were fascinated with how we do it in North America (the west) and I soon learned that sales presentations typically ended up talking 95% about falconry and only 5% about the products I was selling. I quickly realized relationships was what I was really selling and earning their trust. As a result, I became very successful at what I did and got to spend a great deal of time with them and sharing knowledge. I experienced true Arab hospitality, eating, camping and hunting with them, absorbing their culture, learning a little Arabic and accompanying them on hunting trips both domestically and abroad. Falconry is indeed woven into the very tapestry of their culture and almost every family has a father, brother, uncle who is a falconer and even every bank note has a photo of a falcon on it. So different to most parts of the world where most people don’t even know falconry exists. As a result, I gained an insight few have ever been exposed to and their incredible world with incredible passion … and incredible wealth.
After 7 wonderful years I decided it was time to return to Canada to spend more time hunting my preferred quarry and big game and take life easy. I gave 6 months’ notice to my employer which ultimately coincided not only with the outbreak of Covid but the arrival of our first grandchild, so the timing was right. We returned on the last plane out of Dubai for Canada before covid lockdown and back to the same area of Canada we had left. My wife would agree if you asked her, but it was the best experience we have ever had and so different to how the western media portrays the middle east. Women are treated like princesses, put on a pedestal as it were with special parking for them and priority line ups in any government buildings or even airports. There are even women falconry clubs starting up. My wife loved her time there, found a job and enjoyed the fantastic Mediterranean type weather we had for 7 months of the year and although the summers are unbearably hot, she didn’t have to endure 5 months of snow back home in Canada. Upon our eventual return to Canada, thanks to smart investing from my earnings, I decided to retire early and am now in a fortunate position to hunt every day of the 7-month falconry season as well as throughout the big game archery and rifle season.
As I reflect through my fulfilling hunting career, the course of my life all began with an innocent introduction for a day’s plinking with air guns through a friend of my brother-in-law. Who would have guessed this brief encounter would ultimately evolve and shape my entire life. Of course, life/society has become a little more complex if not complicated these days and at the same time so many people are becoming far removed from the reality of nature and the vast majority of the human population are becoming more urbanized than ever before, and in doing so, becoming further detached to the ways of nature and the countryside. It becomes a struggle to break youngsters and adults alike, away from their phones and their virtual reality world. However, I share this story with you as it goes to show the potential impact, we all have in inviting a friend or interested individual to join you in the field. For many years I’ve made a point of “paying it forward” and have taken many interested individuals young and old, out hunting or hawking. At the very least they get a better understanding of what we do but you never know if one of those guests or acquaintances you expose to countryside life and hunting becomes a hunter themselves, and let’s face it, the future of our sport lies within our youth … and particularly in Europe and UK, for public support.
Written by Mark Williams