As the weather cools, now is the perfect time to try the desert’s oldest sport.
Want to engage with a truly local pastime? Peter Bergh, owner of Shaheen Xtreme, may have moved his desert camp, but the South African master falconer continues to offer hands-on lessons for anyone keen to get an insight into handling birds. We caught up with him on Sir Bani Yas as he was overseeing an operation to keep pigeons away from a hotel – a task for which he has brought in a number of his birds.
You had a camp set up just off Al Ain Road. What happened to that? To put you in the loop, the resort where my old camp was has now closed. I’ve made the decision to move my camp further up Al Ain Road to Al Lisaili and have taken on a couple of other projects; we’re doing falconry demonstrations on Sir Bani Yas island and then, at the end of the year, we’re starting lessons and demonstrations at the Banyan Tree Resort in Ras Al Khaimah. They’ve built us a really nice, hi-tech facility out there.
How does it work with hands-on lessons? What do we learn? On any given day we’re training about four or five falcons a day and we try to bring out birds at different stages of their training. At the start, we aim to get the bird comfortable with you as a handler, and get them to accept you. After that, we show you how to encourage them to work for you and for their food as a reward. Once you’ve got the food element involved, that’s when you can start asking them to do radical things for you, and that’s what we try to introduce students to.
The idea being that students are training the birds as well during these lessons? A falcon will, from when you start to when you finish, become a stamp of your ability. With that in mind it’s not a good idea to change handlers a lot for one bird. Still, it depends on the individual. If a person is competent and the birds are not at risk, we allow them to go as far as possible. Pick the bird up, give them food, basic work with a lure.
What do you do with the birds during the hot summer months? We keep them in air conditioning in a little farm we own. We’re actually training a golden eagle over there at the moment. She’s a year old and totally untouched, untrained. We’ve just started the training with her. It’s quite a big bird, there’s a real ‘wow’ to looking at her.
Have you got any other new birds in for this season? We have lots of new birds. We picked up some nice new red-naped shaheens, saker falcons and gyr-peregrines over the summer.
Would we be able to buy a bird after a few lessons? I think you’d want to put an entire season in before buying. Read the necessary books, and I can offer you follow-up advice on that sort of stuff. But after about a season’s apprenticeship you should be competent enough to care for these birds. We spend a lot of time just teaching people how to care for them before moving onto the nuances of body language and tips on handling.
Are you keeping them hungry, and using that to maintain the relationship with them? What you’re working with is their appetite, rather than a bird that is coming back to you because it’s starving. That’s where the difference lies between a competent and a not-so-competent falconer. The birds should be conditioned to come back to you for that meal every single day.
So they just want you for food? It’s total cupboard love – they pretend to like you for that food. There’s no bond in that sense. But saying that, you can imprint an animal. If you take it from a baby, you do have that relationship with it. They have no fear for you, because they see you as the same.
So what’s the appeal of falconry if you don’t get the same bond and companionship that you would with a domesticated animal? I think it’s the art of it all. You don’t get the love reward that you would with a dog or cat, but your reward is having a bird flying at 2,000 feet that will return to you when you call it back. You’re also constantly learning and feeding your brain in this sport. Guys who have been doing falconry for 70 years still claim to be learning every day.
Shaheen Xtreme offers three-hour, intensive hands-on lessons from a desert camp in Al Lisaili, just off Al Ain Road. Dhs1,000 per person, including transport to and from Dubai. Less hands-on demonstrations also available for Dhs500 per person. Call Peter on 050 874 5725 or see www.shaheenxtreme.com for info.