In a new collection of his journalism, BRIAN JACKMAN, who is perhaps best known for his writing on the African bush, turns his attention closer to home. In this piece, he combines two of his great loves: Cornwall and peregrine falcons
Long before I lived in Dorset, the lure of the West Country had taken hold, and not a year has passed in which I have not crossed the Tamar to revisit the Cornish coves where all my childhood holidays were spent. For me, the magic is as strong as ever, the feeling of the sea taking over, the land running out as you follow the sun.
Cornwall has the lean, spare beauty of a land long exposed to the elements. There is no fat on it. You can feel its ribs through the turf under your feet, and see where the quilted fields fall away to reveal a gaunt breastbone of granite running from Bodmin Moor all the way down to the treeless parishes of West Penwith.
It was Cornwall that taught me long ago how weather can change a landscape, what happens when a sudden sea fret comes rolling in over the hedge banks, and why so many artists come to paint the pure Atlantic sea light. Now here I was, crossing the Tamar once again, this time in twilight with a fine rain falling on Brunel’s bridge. At Bodmin Road the station walls glittered black and wet in the lamplight and the night was chill, holding that indefinable smell, perhaps of the sea, not so far off , and the acid odours of the ancient moor by which I would know Cornwall with my eyes shut.
What had brought me back were the peregrines that have bred on Cornwall’s Atlantic coast since time immemorial. Here is a bird that is a masterpiece of aerodynamic design, a million times more complex than any jet fighter. When it stoops, diving out of the sun towards its unsuspecting quarry, its speed can exceed two hundred miles an hour; and its lustrous lemon-rimmed eyes are eight times sharper than our own.
Everything I know about these fabulous falcons I learned at the feet of Dick Treleaven, a man as Cornish as his name. In his time he had been an infantry commander, painter and falconer, but spent all his last years watching peregrines on the cliffs in fair weather and foul. For him there was no finer sight in nature than this yellow-fisted killer with the Genghis Khan moustache and harsh, heckling cry. ‘Peregrines are an obsession with me,’ he said. ‘I love to watch them cleave the air with that immense sense of purpose. For me they are the embodiment of the wild places in which they live and have their being.’
His passion for these glorious raptors began in, of all unlikely places, London. It was in the late 1940s; he had just returned from fighting the Japanese in the Burma Campaign during World War II and was window-shopping in Piccadilly. A painting caught his eye. It was a portrait of a Greenland falcon by George Lodge, perhaps the finest wildlife artist of his day. He went inside and saw more pictures, including a peregrine that captured his imagination. ‘Two things happened as a result,’ he explained. ‘I began to paint, and I returned home determined to see a wild peregrine, and discovered to my surprise that Cornwall was the best place in England for observing them.’
With his arms waving like a conductor at the last night of the Proms, eyes ablaze with a wild predatory gleam, I still remember him describing the first kill he ever saw – a hunt that ended when the tiercel (male peregrine) grabbed a pigeon directly above him. ‘Feathers trickled down over my head and shoulders,’ he said. ‘I felt as if I had been anointed.’
In 1951 he took up falconry, the better to be able to paint hawks, joining the close-knit and eccentric brotherhood that met regularly at Hallworthy to fly their birds on Bodmin Moor. His first hawk was a goshawk called Crasher that he used to carry around Bude on his fist. ‘One day I overheard these two kids talking as I went past,’ he told me. “There he goes,” said one to the other, “old Plus-Fours and his bloody sparrow.”’
Crasher was followed by a succession of other hawks, including a lanner falcon from Benghazi and another goshawk called Sammy Snatchit who escaped and was last seen perched on a railway signal in Basingstoke. But he never kept a peregrine. ‘They owe allegiance to nobody,’ he declared. ‘I know the peregrine is the falconer’s dream, but I could never own one. It is too noble a bird to be captive. It has to be free. It belongs high on a clifftop, and that is where I like to see it fly and hear it scream.’
Sadly, Dick died in 2009, but not before he had been awarded the MBE in recognition of his lifelong dedication to the birds whose behaviour he knew better than anyone before or since.
DICK TRELEAVEN IT WAS who had shown me the way to the coast, down a narrow lane between squat hedge banks of Delabole slate, built Cornish style in herringbone patterns, from whose crevices the fleshy leaves of pennywort erupted like green blisters. Where the lane ended on the open cliffs the ferocity of the winter gales had torn at the bracken until only the wiry main stems remained. Yet even here, among the most sheltered tussocks and in south-facing hollows out of the wind, early primroses told of returning spring.
The day was cheerless but the coast was alive with birds. Herring gulls hung in the up-draughts, crook-winged, wailing, rising and falling about the pillars and buttresses of yawning chasms. Somewhere a raven grunted beneath an overhang. Fulmars gabbled as they planed over the swell and boomeranged around the cove before landing on guano-spattered crags, and above the mumble of the sea arose the fretful piping of oystercatchers and the deeper, menacing bark of a marauding black-backed gull.
The wind was raw and I cast around the lichen-scabbed rocks and coconut-scented gorse thickets for a place to shelter and scan the black cliff on the far side of the cove, looking for the resident pair of peregrine falcons whose eyrie was hidden at the back of a grassy ledge halfway up the rock face.
Even before I found them I could hear them screaming, and suddenly there they were, both birds together, flickering in from the sea. Almost at once the female (known simply as the falcon) disappeared behind the headland, but I watched the tiercel land on a cushion of thrift and begin to tug at something anchored firmly beneath his yellow feet. Grey feathers floated away on the wind and I realised I had just missed a kill. Most likely it was the falcon that had made the kill and had brought in the pigeon for her mate, who was now greedily tearing red hunks of meat from the plumed carcass.
During the winter the falcon is the dominant hunter. She it is who makes most of the kills, virtually feeding the smaller tiercel. In winter, too, these Cornish peregrines range further afield, wandering inland on their hunting forays, but still returning to roost on the coast.
The peregrine is moved by visions we can only guess at,
living a freedom we can never know
On another part of the cliff a pair of ravens had lodged their nest of sticks in a narrow rock chimney. Their breeding season had begun even before that of the peregrines. For weeks the female had been sitting on a clutch of freckled sea-green eggs. Now, although there were newly hatched chicks in the nest, both parents spent more time in the air, tumbling and flying in perfect unison, wingtip to wingtip, feet dangling. Sometimes one bird would peel away in a long, looping dive, only to rejoin its mate moments later, their black pinions almost touching, like outstretched fingers.
It was now nearly noon, time for lunch. I dug into my backpack, unwrapped a pasty and poured coffee into a plastic mug that I cupped with both hands to thaw my frozen fingers. Just as I was about to raise the mug to my lips there was a sudden commotion and every gull and jackdaw on the cliff was aloft, wheeling and crying.
I did not take long to find out the reason for the commotion. Halfway down the cliff the two ravens had cornered a buzzard on a ledge near their nest. The buzzard was clearly unhappy and mewed plaintively as it sought to defend itself; but the ravens were merciless. Their throats swelled, their hackles rose and their guttural barks rang around the cove as they chased the buzzard from ledge to ledge.
At times it seemed as if they were deliberately baiting their victim. While one raven shuffled forward, croaking loudly, its mate would sneak up behind and tweak the buzzard by the tail. Once they almost forced it into the sea; but at last it managed to gain height and flap ignominiously to safety, mobbed by gulls until finally it took refuge in a hedge. Meanwhile the ravens, having tired of their sport, were performing a victory roll over the cliffs. High overhead the bold buccaneers twirled and tumbled. Their jet-black plumage shone with glossy green and purple glints as they rolled in a single shaft of sunlight and finally disappeared beyond the headland.
So intent had I been on watching the ravens that I never saw the falcon return to her favourite hunting perch high up under the lip of the cliff. One minute there was nothing but bare rock; the next she was there, alert and upright, a furious gargoyle glaring out to sea.
Her sudden appearance is typical of the peregrine. How swift it is, how mysterious its secret comings and goings; assured and complete, it belongs to a world more ancient than our own, moved by visions we can only guess at, living a freedom we can never know.
By now the sun had broken through, although the sea wind was as cold as ever, and both the falcon and the tiercel were aloft. Even through my binoculars they were mere specks, yet they seemed to dominate the landscape beneath. At first it appeared they were simply revelling in the joy of flight, carving immense parabolas across the sky and almost playing with the pigeons that scattered in panic at every leisurely stoop. And still I waited.
Afternoon came. The wind dropped. The sun became warmer and a big mottled seal appeared at the base of the cliffs, bobbing like a bottle in the cove’s green depths.
Winter or summer, the magic of this savage coast never fails. On either side the cliffs fall sheer, sometimes breaking away to form barnacled reefs, dark islands and towers of bristling rock at whose feet the heaving swell booms and subsides with sinister gasps.
Above me the falcon was back at her pitch. She has evolved a method of hunting that is entirely suited to the lie of the land and the predictable movements of the pigeons that are her favourite prey. When she leaves the cliff she flies like a fugitive, dropping swiftly towards the sea to disappear behind the headland. There she lets the up-blast lift her, riding with it until she is in view once more.
Inland, gulls are circling in a thermal and she glides towards them, ringing up on the warm currents of air until she is no more than a black star blinking among the crests and summits of the towering clouds. Now she drifts, going towards the sun, following the line of the coast for perhaps a mile, to the inlet where the pigeons breed. She has learned the ways of pigeons, which leave the cliffs every day and pass up the shallow valley to feed in the fields.
From her lofty ambush among the clouds, nothing escapes her binocular vision: white specks of gulls glancing over the ploughland; black rooks and grapeshot bursts of starlings; but what she is looking for is the piebald flicker of feral pigeons, and at once she accelerates. Her bow-bent wings beat faster, so fast that I can almost sense the hunger burning inside her, driving her forward with an unmistakable sense of purpose.
Unable to take my eyes off her in case I lose her, I cannot yet see what she can see, but I know that she is hunting, and I remember something Dick Treleaven once told me: ‘Peregrines don’t really chase pigeons,’ he said. ‘Their whole strategy is based on interception.’ And it’s true. Somewhere beneath her, as yet unaware of danger, a flock of pigeons is heading for home.
From a mile high the falcon tips forward, folds her wings and stoops, faster than a falling stone. Her dive carries her below the skyline, where she is harder to see against the dun colours of the moor; but now for the first time I pick up her quarry. The pigeons scatter as she swoops beneath them and then bounds up to snatch at a straggler. She misses – levels out over Hendra, skimming over the bare fields with white gulls boiling in her wake. On she goes, streaking low over the stone walls, past squat church towers and farms slate-roofed against the gales – and misses again.
But she is not done yet. Now she rings up, turns and flies directly towards us, passing overhead in an effortless glide, her wings dark blades, yellow feet bunched up behind. I can see her round head swivelling and briefly feel her gaze upon me as she scans the ground beneath, and as she swings out over the cliffs the sun outlines her body in a wash of burning gold. Once more she climbs: the cloud biter, the beautiful barbarian, ‘waiting on at her pitch’ in the words of the old falconers, a thousand feet above the headland.
Then comes another searing stoop, corkscrewing down towards her target; and this time her dive takes her right into the cove, whipping low over the waves as if intent on committing suicide by smashing into the cliffs; but at the last moment she bounds upwards almost vertically to alight on a buttress near the eyrie. Grey feathers drift away from the motionless shadow beneath her feet and her triumphant scream floats back across the abyss.