Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
Eagle and Falcon
"I PRESERVE the golden eagle,
but shoot the peregrine." So, on 30th April, 1893, wrote the late Duke of
Argyll, concerning the two noblest forms of winged life. From an enlightened
proprietor, a humane man, and one profoundly interested in wild creatures,
this represented rather more than the sentiment of the time. The average
position is tersely put in the words of another correspondent. "We are
better off without the one and I do not see that the other is of any use."
There were those, not enlightened nor humane, who cared for neither falcon
nor eagle—perhaps, could scarcely distinguish one from the other and shot
ignorance kills. Self-interest rules throughout, with a milder or ruder
sway, hindering the action of an awakening aesthetic sense even in the most
tolerant. Some have an eye a little more discriminating than that of a
gamekeeper, which is no more than might reasonably be expected. Many have
not. In all the gamekeeper is represented. Where are deer forests are
occasional depredations, especially when the demands of the aerie are
From some lofty perch, the
eagle watches where the calf is hidden for the day. With a quick, feminine
instinct the hind-ere she turns the bend of the hill to join the herd-looks
back. And her heart stands still, because of that double speck in the air.
The eagle ascends dragging something aloft, as though bearing a second
Ganymede. It opens its claws. A quivering mass falls through the air ; and
so it kills the calf. With a low whimper, the hind speeds back -too late.
Such tragedies are in the wilds; such intense moments and breathless
incidents. Others see, and are wroth that a royal head has gone. On the
Argyll estates is no deer forest.
For the rest of the year, and
even in times of stress, the eagle prefers a mountain hare. It is not quite
so heavy to lift, and may be carried to some convenient perch, far from the
reach of disturbance. Fur is the favourite food for feather. Where are
plenty of hares, other forms of life are fairly safe. In deer forests, the
loss is inconsiderable. With a tendency to over-increase so that an annual
slaughter of the hinds takes place each December-two or three calves can
scarcely be missed.
Perhaps Argyllshire is not a
sporting county of the first order; not as Perthshire, for instance, nor
parts of Aberdeen down Braemar way. In common with all the west country, it
suffers from the blight of damp. The west winds trail their dripping fringes
over the hill slopes, thus sifting themselves of their moisture, till they
become the dry mountain breezes of the central Grampians. There are moors
with grouse large if few. And a golden eagle will pick up a grouse.
Still an eye with the light
of reason in it might see that this is not serious. And it is quite
conceivable that the intelligent owner of a moor might look on with
tolerance. The depredations of a pair do not greatly lessen the August bag.
Some have found the blue hare a greater enemy of sport than they, and
acknowledged the services in its removal. To spare the golden eagle over the
purple heather, and against the speedwell blue of the sky, is to borrow from
nature a spark of beauty at very little expense. To some that may not mean
much; but it is so. When it flops down on a grouse, it may be doing a
benefit. It is a messenger of nature. And, in a certain lofty way,-perhaps
outside ordinary reckoning, but which I shall try to make good, a servant of
Who is not charmed with the
rich dark plumage of the red grouse, or would have it altered ? Is it not
part of the glamour and the spell? It is autumny - of the heather when it
blooms. It is moorland and hill incarnate. It excites ever so fresh emotions
- calls up ever so delightful visions - leaves an unfading glow on the
spirit. The nearest relative is the willow grouse, of more arctic climes.
The cry is much the same; the eggs are indistinguishable. In one thing do
they differ. The willow grouse turns white in winter, and at all times is
paler hued. Charming and sympathetic as the plumage is, in the natural
haunts of the bird, here it would be out of place, and fatal. So that when
the bird came to Britain it changed into the red grouse. A tendency to
reversion is checked, and the hues are kept toned to the sober mountain
Feathers with their varied
and exquisite touches -so rich at the shooting time when most seen - we owe
to selective agents. They are the largesse of an enemy of the individual,
and a friend of the cult.
On the scant wages of a few
birds, to vary the diet, the work goes on ceaselessly, and with such
charming results. August by August, grouse appear as they were,
indistinguishable from the background, in the delightful sympathy of toning.
Unaided, the background could not so tone them to its hues, take them to
itself. Of selective agents the golden eagle is one.
With head curved, he seems a
speck. More than one crouching covey baffles even his keen eye; so perfectly
has the work been done. Even the low flight from place to place is lost,
against a background which takes its living creatures in charge and hides
them from an eye aloft. At length the eagle pauses, excitedly. Some defect
in the shading has betrayed the quarry. Some imperfect feather has crept in
unaware. Some careless touch of a brush not dipped in heather. Nature
condones no mistakes, not even her own.
And we shoot the artist. It
is barbarous. Had there been as many silly people, long ago, to kill out
nature's agents, the red grouse, as we delight to have it, would never have
been evolved. Yet we strive to bring about a condition of things in which it
will be no longer needful to have russet hues for hiding. Nor will all the
wit of man stay them from fading, or put them back where they were. As a
painter without his brush, the moor will show its helplessness in the
absence of living agents. From its own palette the heather will not lay on a
single hue. Reversion will set in, and charm will go. The true enemy is not
the eagle. But it is not all tinting. Something else is in the conception of
The falcon seeks game mainly
on the wing. She loves the stern chase, the lofty air perch, the swift and
fatal stoop. There is reason in shooting the falcon. How mean and
unsportsmanlike the reason will appear. She exacts her toll from the moor.
Of a covey of grouse, she will have one. Which one?
Some say the weakling; that
which lags, because it may not keep pace with the others and falls an easy
prey. A plea has been urged for her on this very account. For are not these
weaklings most likely to contract infection-if not already victims of
incipient disease-and spread havoc among the rest? It is good that the
devastating career should be stopped. And is not she the physician of
I am less disposed to make
use of this than once I was; partly because I see something better that may
be said. It is based on imperfect observation, and still more faulty
appreciation of larger issues. Pity if it were true, seeing that it would
involve more loss than gain. There are birds-I know a few-possessed of the
passion of flight, - that strain on the wing for the very joy of putting
forth their energies. There are birds of prey which rejoice more in the
pursuit than the capture. All have a liking for the chase. The rarer like it
well. The rarest of all is the peregrine. Its sporting qualities are matter
of history and tradition. It is too late to blacken its character.
That she - for the female is
the falcon - will strike unworthy fugitives, with none other in sight, is
true enough. But he, who has seen her turn contemptuously away without
taking the trouble to kill, will not suppose that she prides herself in the
deed. In a covey, with the strong birds straining before, to say that she
will stay her career at the laggard is altogether to mistake her mood. The
one fitter than the rest is the falcon's aim. If this be crime then she is
guilty, but we respect her the more. She is a noble criminal. On the whole,
I do not think that the falcon deems grouse worthy quarry, or is seen at her
best on the moor. There are arenas of greater stress, birds of nimbler
Grouse rise heavily before
the sportsman-so heavily as to suggest a startled effort to escape that way
when no other seemed open. It may well be so. Flight itself may have come
into being, as a refuge from ground enemies not to be distanced, or
outwitted, on the level. Wild creatures would not take to the wing without
stimulus ; nor apart from some such use would flight, once attained, have
been preserved. Those who could rise above reach, and get along a little way
with a flapping motion, would have the best chance of surviving.
When the bird first sprung
from the reptile, the air was empty of danger. A lumbering flight was good
enough, and would probably have been the highest stage reached. A further
stimulus was needed. That came in the form of winged enemies; pursuers in
the same element, and of their own kindred. From such are the perfection,
and all the marvellous mechanism of flight. To distance the pursuer, a bird
had to put on all its speed. It could put on no more than it had received.
But some were quicker than the rest. The slow perished by slow-winged hawks.
The quicker survived, to raise quicker broods. And, so the limits of speed
were increased. That there might be no relaxing of the strain, no
resting-place in the course of evolution, on the track of the swifter was
the swift-winged falcon.
Where speed failed, wiles to
elude were tried, which test the stroke of the hawk. The pursuer became
still more wonderful than the pursued, inasmuch as it had to outfly and
outmanoeuvre. Flight was moulded, its forward impulse lent, its every subtle
bend and graceful curve acquired in this school. If we have thought
otherwise, it will be well to unlearn the rustic creed.
What tests the hawk tests
also the skill of the marksman. But for such discipline, sport were wholly
wanting in zest, nor would it have known the supreme test of a flying shot,
or how to meet a tricky flight. Only ignorance can excuse the gracelessness
with which this debt is repaid. Such is so much of the story of life in the
open as is influenced by these two forms.
If we assume a sculptor, they
are the chisel; a painter, they are the brush. They did everything except
create. The falcon gave the flight feathers, lengthened and pointed the
wing. The eagle touched the plumage with moorland hues, whose charm was the
greater because of the exquisite sympathy. The reaction is marked; the eye
of the eagle became keener. Even the byplay is of infinite interest. The
protective shades of grouse give the nose of the pointer; less cunningly
hidden, and a coarser sense were enough. An interesting three are grouse,
sportsman, and dog. The hawk established their delicate relations.
Time was when people minded
these things. If they did not think of them quite in this way, the result
was the same. They let Nature alone, as old enough to manage her own
affairs. The love of mammon and all unrighteousness was not yet awake. With
the instinct of fair play, which is the vital spark of sport, they gave each
a chance. Their little differences they let the wildlings settle among
themselves, and found it greatly to the health, and altogether to the joy of
the moor. More clearly does this come out now that there is little health
and less joy. It gave the detachment from butchery needful to make it a
recreation for gentlemen.
Old servants stayed with
their olden masters, and it was found to be good for both. The lesson
applies to the moor. That the old servants there may be turned off without
loss is not the case. Looseness will slip in, and want of sympathy; with
attendant risk and ultimate decay. The loss may well be by littles, but so
was the gain. The present generation of sportsmen may not see the undoing,
neither did they see the doing. In their last season grouse will be shaded,
as they were on the first.
Nature never alters her ways,
either in the giving or the taking. She is wondrous kind even to the renters
of moors; she shows so little at a time.
Nor will new servants fill
the place of the old, in the open any more than they do in the house. The
eye of the gamekeeper is nothing to the eye of the hawk. The two do not mean
the same thing. The one has a narrow, the other a far outlook. One works for
his employer, the other in the interests of the moor. The one is there to
keep the birds wild, the other to make them tame.
And tame they will become; by
degrees, perhaps, but steadily. Half the wildness of wild creatures is a
continuous fear and watchfulness; half the tameness is to have no enemies.
Disturb the balance of nature, and you have no nature in either scale. The
falcon which strikes the fittest, points on to a fitter still-an ideal
beyond. In her absence is reversion to the reality behind, barely covered
out of sight. Kill her and with the same bullet you kill the grouse as you
know it, and arrest sport.
Straining after the leader of
the covey she appeals to chivalry and every sportsmanlike instinct. Between
the shooter of large bags on easy terms and the peregrine, the bird has the
truer spark. She loves sport for its own sake, and seeks to win in a fair
heat. The bird, which by reason of speed or resource escapes, she probably
respects, and will measure herself against some other day. Her appetites are
secondary; her sporting instincts dominate. She prefers the sauce of chase,
and the more piquant the better. She will leave a languid capture in midmeal
at the challenge of some nobler quarry.
From Sutherlandshire, the
report, 15th January 1898, was that golden eagles abounded over the county,
being preserved by the Duke. Falcons were to be met with. No word of
protection. No change has come about since. Eagles are increasing, not
falcons ; and that where the proprietor is humane and the policy liberal. So
it is all over Scotland, protection of the golden eagle, except where the
illiberal or inhumane kill both. Always the falcon that is left to her fate.
One is sometimes tempted to wish that it were the other way.
In all but size, the falcon
is the nobler. She is neither so loose nor so lumbering, nor so gross of
appetite, nor so indifferent, where and how she finds her prey. In the
golden eagle appetite is first, the sporting instinct is absent. Within
limits he may have his preferences. Mountain hares are more easily seen than
sitting, and more readily caught than flying game. Should there be a dying
lamb, or the carcass of a sheep about, even the mountain hare is safe for
the day; he will gorge himself. No love of chase for its own sake, nor sense
of fair play, nor trace of chivalry, is there. For the rest he is sullen,
cruel, and treacherous.
The falcon has the better
part, utterly without grossness of habit or any meanness of spirit. Proud is
she, almost to haughtiness. A wonderful picture of wild life is that where
she lands on the ledges of rock over her captive. Impatience is in the act
of twisting the neck and tossing the head away. The talons relax, the keen
eyes flash as a swifter wing comes in sight. And with her sterner qualities,
she is gentle and tractable, so that she will sit on a lady's wrist.
Chivalry in feathers appeals
to knightly men; this sporting bird that would rather a long chase than an
easy capture, rather a swift wing than a fat meal, appeals to all true
sportsmen. For the rest - whose spirit is different - possibly she despises
them as she does the mean among birds, and when she receives the bullet
casts an undaunted look down on the shooter.
With her clean habits and
disdainful mood, she does not readily succumb to the vulgarity of a trap, or
the cunning of a bait. She will starve before she will stoop. She may be
shot, but she will not be tempted. Therefore the frequent reports from the
remoter districts, 'Peregrine common, though destroyed when seen.' Like
enough is she to hold her own and return, if not the same, then another
peregrine, till men's eyes are opened to the colour of their actions. The
falcon for a looking-glass may help them to see their likeness.
Only fixed at the nesting
time, even then she chooses a lodgement for her brood, wild, often
inaccessible, a fit background for her and their picturesque personality. No
more exhilarating sight is there than the young falcons in their nest on the
giddy ledge, looking boldly out on the dwarfed glen or silent surf.
Fearless, they will strike at the man swung over from above, on a rope.
Only the other day some of
the more offensive of the tourist cult, after tormenting some ravens, found
a cleft or goat track by which they could approach an aerie. In vain the old
birds sought to divert or daunt them. The falcon shot, the less bold tiercel
withdrew. These out of the way they reached the nest, and threw the young
into their game sack. It is not pleasant to think such things are done, that
such gunners should be allowed to kill nobler creatures than themselves. It
has an ugly resemblance to other kinds of shooting, and should teach to shun
the very appearance of being one in such a fellowship.
On putting aside the gun, one
may lay the flattering unction to his soul that, after all, no great harm
has been done; not in such a short life as ours, no very apparent harm. A
dying sportsman should seek a cleaner record than that. He should be able to
say—I have meant no harm, I have done no unfair deed, taken no mean
advantage, spoiled no other creature’s play. Were I to live it over again, I
see nothing I should care to alter.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.