20 Feb 2019
Falconry is a time-honoured tradition in the Middle-East going back millennia. It is a spiritual sport that forges a deep connection between man and bird, starting when the bird is still a fledgling—and it is stunning to observe as a swooping falcon races, wings unfurled, to a confident handler’s outstretched hands
One of the Middle East’s most famous falconers, Peter Bergh, is a local legend. Racking up more than 18 years of falconry experience, he is the founder of Royal Shaheen, Dubai’s best falconry safari provider. We spoke with Peter who now offers falconry displays at Jumeirah al Wathba Desert Resort and Spa in Abu Dhabi.
Peter and Falconry
“My love affair with falcons began more than 25 years ago, back home in South Africa,” Peter tells us. “A friend of mine was into falconry at the time and he would often come to our farm to hunt birds with his African Goshawk. I knew back then, this was something I wanted to try. Falcons are by far the fastest animals on this planet. My own satisfaction in falconry comes from pushing the boundaries and finding ways to extract incredible speeds from my birds.”
Falconry: Ancient and Modern
“Traditionally, the Bedouin people relied on the falcon in the same way as we rely on the supermarket today. The falcon was used during the winter months to hunt and catch protein for the Bedouin families long before firearms and supermarkets where even thought of.”
Today, there are two main attractions for the modern falconer: “first and foremost is still hunting, with two main quarry species as a target, the prized Houbara Bustard and the challenging Karawan. Hunting is practiced from the fist: the quarry species is located and the falcon is released in a straight line pursuit until the quarry is reeled in and caught. This style of falconry is often referred to as shotgun falconry.”
“There is also falcon racing, which is conducted in similar fashion to hunting. A bird flies from the fist in a straight line to a falconer swinging a traditional lure. The birds are flown one at a time and their speeds and times are recorded. Falcon racing has revitalized the ancient art of falconry in the Middle East.”
With this revitalization, a fast-developing falcon market has emerged. “Most of us are familiar with horses and how their value is determined; the same is true for falcons. Birds with good performance, strength, and appealing characteristics, are generally sold off for large sums of money. A winner in the falcon racing will similarly be extremely sought after.”
The Cutting Edge of Falconry
Peter has recently made headlines in the Middle East’s tourism sector with his project: Flying with Falcons. “After acquiring a percentage of a balloon company, we began to ask: ‘why don’t we fly falcons from the balloons?’ And so it began. We took four baby falcons bred in Scotland and imprinted them, before training them daily in Umbria around hot air balloons.”
“We then returned to Dubai to launch the groundbreaking project. We take off in a hot air balloon, climb to 4,000 feet where the falcon is released, and our clients get to witness for the first time a falcon and human sharing the same airspace. In the modern era of falconry, we are continuously searching for better, more efficient ways of conditioning our falcons. In pursuit of this, I have developed a remote-controlled flying delta wing (called a Berghwing) for training. By chasing this day after day, a falcon gradually increases its flying times and distances. The Berghwing also brings the planet’s most formidable apex predator right in front of us so that we may enjoy their incredible performance capabilities.”
Peter’s safaris can be enjoyed at Jumeirah al Wathba Desert Resort and Spa in Abu Dhabi. The tours can also be booked from any one of Jumeirah’s hotels. Simply ask your concierge or private butler and you too can watch falcons race past at 4,000 feet in the air.