A Hawk, A Walk, and An Omnivore Talk

Day: 147

Cities / Towns Visited: 76

Countries Visited: 20

Steps Taken Today: 13,713

Steps Taken Around the World: 2,537,936

With our first activity for the day not scheduled until midday, and not having to check out, we took the opportunity to catch up on a little sleep. However, when the sandman finally released us from his grasp, we rose excited, as the day had come that we would be participating in something we had very much been looking forward to for quite some time, a hawk walk. I swear if I had been born in another era, I would have taken up falconry as a pastime, alas I was not, thus we were to settle for an hour of walking with a guide and, you guessed it, a hawk. Eventually we made it to the meeting point, after following the directions provided by the company, which read like the most rural country instructions ever; we’re talking ‘over the bridge and right at the big tree’ kind of instructions. Parking the car, it was time for the fun to begin.

Our friendly host greeted us and handed us both a leather glove, before ducking his head into the van and popping out with a truly incredible creature; a Harris Hawk named Meiko. This beautiful bird is native to the USA and South America, and, unlike many other birds of prey, this breed often hunts in packs of up to sixteen. Our guide released Meiko, who flew up and perched on an advantageous branch, overlooking us and the surroundings, then tucked a little piece of feather covered chick meat in the space between my thumb and forefinger and all of a sudden Meiko came swooping in and landed gentle on my glove. To say I was elated is an understatement. It’s hard to explain how magnificent these predators are until you see them up close. They may look weighty but in fact they are deceptively light to hold; his feathers a deep chestnut brown and perfectly preened, his claws strong and sharp, his eyes ever vigilant. I could have just stood there admiring his beauty for an eternity, but alas it was time for our walk to start.

Sauntering down the dirt path, Meiko flew off to a perch in the trees or on the fence posts, before alternating between taking meat out of each three of our gloves, and flying off again. As we wandered, our guide explained everything you’d ever want to know about falconry as a pastime, and it’s use for hunting back in the day. We were surprised to discover just how many old saying are actually related to this millenia old hobby. From ‘old codger’ (coming from the word cadge, which was the padded wooden cage which used to be used to be used to carry hooded hawks into the fields), to ‘fed up’ (that being if you feed the bird too much it will be useless at hunting as it doesn’t feel the need to catch anything), as well as ‘man up’ (this being the term for gaining the trust of the bird before it can be trained), ‘give him enough rope and he’ll hang himself’ (as birds in training can entangle themselves in the tether if you give them too much rope), ‘slip through your fingers’ and ‘under the thumb’ (which both relate to the practice of holding the jesses around the birds ankles under your thumb to stop them flying off), and even the term ‘get a hobby’ (which relates to the breed of hawks known as Hobby Hawks).

As the walk continued Meiko stopped in one of the trees. Our guide saw a local farmer coming down the path with his dog, and explained that Meiko wouldn’t come down until the dog passes, as in the wild their main predator is the coyote. Despite the fact that Meiko was born in captivity and has never even seen a coyote, it is in his nature to be afraid of dogs, and thus, as if on cue, he started screeching at the dog until they both passed. At this point it was time for a little fun, and with camera set on slow motion, in the hands of my parter, me just down the path with a little piece of meat in my hand, and the guide behind my partner with meat at the ready as well, I raised my hand and Meiko swooped down from the tree onto by glove, before taking off and flying towards the camera, pulling up just before to snatch the food in the glove of the guide, just above my partners head. Roles were reversed and my partner had his turn at being the bird feeder in this game of aerial acrobatics.

At this point, it was Meiko’s turn to have a rest, and thus he was settled back into his cage. The fun wasn’t at an end just yet though, and all of a sudden the guide was placing two barn owls, named Rocky and Ziggy, on my glove clad hand. These tiny, super light, fluffy, killing machines are absolutely adorable. Moving one to my partners hand we had the chance to stand and admire their beauty, while patting the crap out of them. They are almost impossibly soft, which the guide explained is due to the way their feathers are constructed to make them basically silent in flight. He also explained that owls are some of the hardest birds of prey to keep as if they are not trained and handled daily they become untamed rapidly, reverting back to their wild ways. Their massive eyes which can see movement of tiny creatures from more than a kilometre away are mesmerising, and give the appearance that they have drunk seventeen espressos and haven’t slept in a month. It was sad to hear that the number of owls have been declining due to feral cats and foxes, but it was heartening to hear that many farmers are setting up nesting boxes for them in their barns to help keep them safe, and also to help keep rodents out of their produce.

Bidding a sad adieu to our fluffy new friends, and absolutely buzzing from the excitement of the experience, it was time to head off and continue our day. Our next stop was to be Ross Castle, an old tower house from the middle ages, when literally thousands of them sprang up across the country. These defensive buildings weren’t usually massive, and most commonly consisted of three or four floors, the uppermost storeys of which housed the noble family living there. Ross castle, is named as such after the Gaelic word ‘ross’ which means a rock or prominent hill, upon which this one is obviously constructed; it also sits beside a rather peaceful lake.

Hooking onto the tour they run as the only way to view the interior of this aging beauty, we were soon walking past the gun loops which angled at any potential intruders attempting to knock the door down. Heading up the steep spiral staircase we passed the murder hole which sits above the entrance to the tower; a pretty standard addition to these towers, which allowed the defenders in the castle to pour boiling water, excrement, or fat down on their enemies, as well as raining down projectiles.

Moving up further still we stopped in the rooms on each level, each one furnished to resemble how it would have been likely to have appeared during the middle ages, with the largest room decked out as the dining hall for entertaining and accommodating visiting nobles. It was interesting to learn about the fact the floors used to be strewn with rushes, which helped keep the space warm, and also worked as a mattress, of sorts, for guests. They also used rush lights (rushes dipped in fat) for illumination, which aside from poisoning everyone slowly, as they gave off carbon monoxide, they were also a massive fire hazard, what with the floor covered in flammable material, and the floors of the upper storeys all being constructed of wood. Generally these tower houses did have one storey which had a stone floor, in order to prevent the entire building essentially acting as a massive chimney should the lower floor catch fire. Couple the carbon monoxide poisoning with the fire hazard, and the fact that they ate and drank from pewter tableware, which is a mixture of tin and lead, and which caused slow but definite heavy metal poisoning, it’s hardly surprising that the average life expectancy of the medieval masses didn’t tend to edge much past 35.

Conditions were even worse for the servants, who’s bedroom was located right near the entrance to the toilet, or garderobe as it was know back then, due to the fact they used to hang their clothes on pegs along the corridor to the latrine, as the ammonia created by the excrement, which collected in a pit on the ground below the long drop down, seeped back inside and helped to repel and kill the lice which lived in their perpetually unwashed garments. Unfortunately for the servants, this ammonia also seeped into their lungs as they slept, causing further respiratory issues. In short, as much as we love to romanticise the lives of the wealthy in the middle ages, it really was a pretty disgusting and unhealthy time to exist.

By this point we were quite peckish, and thus we bundled back into the car and drove into Killarney. After a bit of trouble, we finally managed to find a park and were soon stepping into a restaurant which had caught our nerdy eyes on the way through that morning; The Shire. As I’m sure you can guess, this culinary establishment is loosely based on the Lord of the Rings series; I will say at this point it was a little too loosely based for our fanatical liking, and much of our visit was spent discussing how we would improve it if it was ours. Setting that aside though, they did make pretty decent burgers and loaded fries, and had a decent selection of gins and rims, which suited us just fine.

With lunch done and dusted, and the day ticking away, we headed off for our last stop on this jam packed day; Muckross House and Abbey, which are located along the picturesque banks of Muckross Lake. Beginning with the house, we bought our tickets and joined the last tour for the day. With no photos allowed, we had a better opportunity to really bask in the story of this Victorian era manor house. The stunning building was erected in 1843 by Henry Arthur Herbert, for his wife Mary. Much of the families fortune was squandered away fixing up the house and elaborately decorating it in the hope Queen Victoria would come and visit. She indeed come and stay, for the whole of two days. All that money spent for such a brief visit was intended to prove the families wealth and status to her majesty, and hopefully, in turn, result in titles and lands being bestowed upon them, thus restoring the fortune they had spent. However, not long after the visit Victoria’s beloved husband Albert died, and in the grief of her loss she forgot all about her stay at Muckross house. After this, the house was sold to Arthur Guinness, who did not live there but instead rented it out as a hunting lodge to wealthy groups. In 1911 it was again sold, this time to the American mining magnate William Bowers Bourn, who later left the house to his daughter Victoria and her new husband Arthur Rose Vincent. In another tragic twist of fate, she died young from pneumonia in 1929, and in 1932 the house was given to the Irish gevernment as a gift in honour of her.

As you walk through the halls of the home, the history of this place calls out from within its walls; the dark panelled, animal trophy mounted walls of the hunting rooms; the delicate airiness of the lavish bedrooms; the ornate decoration of the drawing room; the warm glow of light as it reflects off the copper pots and pans in the kitchen; the tiny beds of the children’s room, and its separate staircase from a time when children were to be seen and not heard; the row of bells along the wall of the servants quarters which summoned them to their duties; the plush decoration and garden view of the Queen’s room on the bottom floor as she was a rather poorly woman with whom stairs did not agree. Our guide had so much enthusiasm for the site, that it was hard not to get caught up in the tales of the families who made this their home, all the way to the quirks of the architecture of the house, like the addition of several extra doors which neither go anyway nor open, as they are purely there simply to make the house look larger; an interesting addition given that that place is huge even without the illusion.

With the tour at an end we scurried off to reach the ruined Abbey which lays a twenty minute walk away through the forest of the Muckross grounds. Passing deer in one paddock, cows in another, and on through a forest which looks like something torn straight from the pages of a fairytale, eventually the crumbing walls of the old Abbey spring into view. This haunting house of God was built in 1448 as a Franciscan friary, but now sits abandoned. It is surrounded by a jumble of old and new gravestones tilted this way and that by the combination of tree roots and time. It does truly seem like the most peaceful place to lay in rest, here within the arms of the forest, watched over by the centuries old tower of the abbey .

As you enter the building, it becomes obvious that this place is standing the test of time against the forces of nature. The roof may be missing from most places, but the walls stand strong, and the memorials cling defiantly at their post. The floors may be nothing but gravel, and the only hints of life in these rooms may only be the sight of fireplaces, and corbels which once held up the wooden floors, but there is something very much alive about the site. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you stumble upon the inner cloister, to a sight which can only be described as magical. Here amongst the ruins stands the most surreal looking yew tree. It’s twisted, pockmarked, and moss covered trunk leading up to the spread of branches hung delicately with soft green foliage. It felt as though this tree would be more akin to witches, or naked dancing pagans, than monks. We stood a long moment in stunned silence before continuing.

With our day at a close, and the sunk sinking low, we made our way back to our accommodation for a home cooked meal, and a well earned rest. As I reflected on out day’s adventure, from our close encounter with those magestic birds of prey, to the countless animal heads mounted on the walls of Muckross House, my mind found itself pondering on our relationship with the animal kingdom, and our place within it. From food, to sport, to hunting, animals have been a part of our existence since time immemorial. Some are friend, some are food, and some are foe, and yet we seem to associate ourselves with a position above their status. We seem to think that because we can train them or contain them that we are superior, and yet it is we, and only we, as a species, who soley chooses to hurt others, either human or animal, for our own sick pleasure. There are people who pay to go big game hunting simply for the express purpose of having a pelt for their floor, or a head for their wall; there are people who will slaughter an animal simply because they have an ill-founded belief that their tusk has magical healing powers, and worse still there are people who will buy it from them, thus fuelling the industry. We must make more informed choices in order to protect the defenceless animals we entrap with our intellect. Don’t buy the puppies from puppy farms, but instead adopt strays; don’t support zoos that capture wild animals, but instead patronise those who aid and rehabilitate injured and endangered species; do not participate in activities which include the cruel torture and abuse of animals, for example; riding elephant in Asia, or attending circuses with animal shows.

When it comes to food, there is also much to be considered. I eat meat in moderation, but I also believe that as an animal of increased cognitive awareness we must go forth with the farming of animals for sustenance with care and empathy. I believe we must advocate for the quickest and most painless method of slaughter; I believe we must try and make their lives as stress free as possible and treat them well; I believe we must aspire to utilise these animals in their entirety, instead of wastefully setting aside parts we deem lesser. If we are to kill another living being, let it not be in vain. I believe we must prevent the extinction of species by our own hands, and eradicate inhumane practices, like the removal of shark fins while throwing the still living creature back onto the water, thus condemning them to a slow, painful, and unnecessary death.

I have been asked by vegans and vegetarians alike whether I would kill an animal by my own hands, seemingly in an attempt to guilt me into changing my eating habits, and to be honest my answer is yes; in a survival situation, if it was just me, a cow, and a sharpened stick, I would. That’s not to say that I would enjoy it, nor would I go into it with some deep seated thirst for blood; however, in my study of the culinary arts I was very much exposed to the processes of meat manufacture, and in being exposed to the reality of it I came to appreciate and respect the creatures who provide us with sustenance; I learnt not to be wasteful of their flesh, because it is just that, the remains of a living being. The animal kingdom, as a whole, has been carrying out this practice since the dawn of time, animals leave no skerig if meat unconsumed, and yet we have brought ourselves to a juncture where so many people are so disconnected from where their food comes from that wastefulness instills no ill feeling within them. There are people who give no thought between caged and free range chickens; and no consideration between cows fed poorly on stock feed, and those allowed to graze freely in the paddock. These are people who see chicken fillets and beef steaks in the supermarket, but have never seen an entire animal carcass, or know the difference between halal and non-halal slaughter techniques.

We humans as animals are, by our very nature and biological make-up, opportunistic omnivores; we have the teeth and stomach of a creature designed to digest both plant and animal matter, and we lack the ability to self produce numerous vitamins, minerals, and amino acids which are often found in their most absorbable state in animals or animal products. I admit that it is now possible for humans to live solely on vegetable matter, but the ability to do so with the correct levels of overall nutrition is a fairly new eventuation. Thanks to the improvement in food transportation, we, in first world countries, can now purchase wide varieties of fruits and vegetables in areas where they would not naturally survive; and thanks to the progression of food science we are able to provide B12 fortified milk substitutes to vegans who would otherwise struggle to include this almost solely animal based vitamin into their daily diet, and often have to take supplements in order to ensure their intake.

Should we be eating less meat? Of course; we certainly consume above and beyond what is necessary for our healthy survival. Is it better for the environment? Many argue yes, but with that said, I would like to see the figures of how much land would need to be cleared, and how many resources would be required to provide enough vegetable matter to deliver the same concentration of nutrients which can be found in small portions of animal products, to the entire population of earth; and how many animals would be killed in the process of this deforestation. I would also like to know what we would do with all of the livestock we now have if we were all to stop eating meat, given that they are now spread worldwide in countries to which they are not native and do not have predators, thus they cannot me released into the wild as they would multiply exponentially and potentially destroy delicate ecosystems. The other option would of course be to keep them until they die of old age, while preventing them from breeding, but then that brings forth a whole other issue of still needing to feed them, and what would become of them as a species if we stopped keeping them now that they are domesticated. Is eating a vegetable based diet healthier? If executed correctly it would seem likely, however many vegetarians and vegans do not pay close enough attention to their diets, and thus find themselves malnourished in major vitamins and minerals necessary for proper health, or they consume products like soy, which has long been up for debate as to its negative effects, especially for women. Do I, and will I continue to, monitor the amount of animal products I include in my diet, and attempt to be mindful of the welfare and waste created by my food choices? Definitely. I do not preach to you to give up the foods you enjoy, eat the beef, bacon, and cheese burger if it brings you pleasure and sustenance; but at the same time spare a thought for where your food came from. Be mindful, for in this small act we can exact true change for the better in the world; for both our benefit, and the benefit of all living things, both plant and animal, on this planet.

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On my dream trip to travel the world, taste its foods, see its wonders, and meet all the strange and beautiful people who reside here.

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