Cambridge author Helen Macdonald trains goshawk for H is for Hawk - A New Chapter on BBC Two
Costa Book of the Year winner stars in Natural World TV special
A decade ago, Helen Macdonald’s father, Alisdair Macdonald, one of Britain’s best photojournalists, died of a heart attack.
In the grief-filled months that followed she began to dream of hawks and the story of how she bought and trained her goshawk, Mabel, in an attempt to deal with her grief, became a bestselling book, H Is For Hawk.
Now, 10 years after her father died, and five since her beloved Mabel’s death, Helen, from Cambridge, is returning to the world of goshawks once more in a Natural World TV special that will be shown on BBC Two at 9pm on Thursday October 19.
She said: “This is the raging wild challenge of my future. A hawk that won’t be a solution to grief, but my wings to somewhere new.”
To Ms Macdonald, goshawks are the most beautiful thing the world has ever made. But very few people are lucky enough to see them in the wild. One of the handful of times Helen had ever seen one was a spring morning a few weeks before her father’s death.
She added: “They are big, bloody scary and very hard to see. Wild goshawks are magnificent phantoms. You might spend a week in a forest full of them and not see one, just traces of their presence and a sense of something moving just beyond vision.”
The programme is a masterful, intimate and moving piece of work and Ms Macdonald proves she is as adept at presenting as she is at writing, not to mention training goshawks too. She even took Lupin to Jesus College in Cambridge.
But although the experience of training a new young bird called Lupin was not an answer to grief this time around, it did rekindle the memory of her late father.
She tells the programme: “Ten years ago my father died suddenly. Stricken with grief, I fled from humanity. I ran towards things of death and difficulty and spooky pale-eyed feathered ghosts that lived in woodland thickets.
“I ran toward goshawks. The story of how I trained my goshawk Mabel became a best selling book, H is For Hawk.
“The new bird has been amazing but it has been kind of hard too. I haven’t sat with an untrained goshawk on my hand since the year my father died and it kind of brought it all back.”
The goshawk was extinct in England for more than a century but is back again and breeding thanks to the falconers of the 1960s and 70s.
British falconers realised that, for the cost of importing one European goshawk for falconry, they could also import another and release it into the wild. Falconers brought British wild goshawks back to life.
In the programme, Ms Macdonald heads to the north of England to live in an isolated farmhouse and train the new goshawk chick, which is owned by a friend.
The film follows Ms Macdonald’s progress, including taking the first steps to tame the hawk by gaining its trust, getting it to come to her hand to retrieve food and training Lupin to fly to her gloved hand across a field.
A BBC spokesperson said: “As Helen hides herself away to begin training the new bird, it soon becomes clear that this chick is very different to Mabel – and so begins a process that is, for Helen, at once familiar and strange: the intense process of learning to live with a hawk.”
But the film also delves into her thoughts and feelings as she reflects on her childhood obsession with birds, illustrated with old home video and photographs.
She tells of taking a falconry course at age 13 and working at a bird of prey centre where she was given her first kestrel that slept in her bedroom bookcase at night. She credits her parents for being incredibly understanding.
Her moving book, which prompted the idea for the TV programme, has won many accolades including the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2015 and the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.
In 2015, it was revealed that the film rights to H is for Hawk had been bought by Game of Thrones actress Lena Headey, who read the book and loved it.
• H is for Hawk – A New Chapter, Natural World, BBC Two, Thursday, October 19 at 9pm.