Falconry has been practiced in the fertile plains, mountains, forests, rivers and meadows of old Portugal since the 12th century in a tradition that has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
In days gone by, it was common to use trained birds of prey to hunt wild animals in their natural habitat, and for this falconers required immense skill and a broad knowledge of the different types of birds of prey in existence, the various species they hunted and the places to find them.
They trained their birds to perfection and kept them in peak condition, thus forging one of the deepest and most unique partnerships to exist between people and animals. As natural predators, hawks were always a popular choice because of their ability to hunt in the air for long distances and often at a great height.
Today, falconers in Portugal use the same ancient techniques to demonstrate this thrilling practice at fairs and rural events up and down the country, with their respect for the bird forming the main essence of their partnership.
Falconry was first introduced to Portugal by the Berbers of North Africa and the practice was subsequently continued by the Visigoths in the 5th century, with the first official reference dating right back to the year 506 when the ecclesiastical authorities forbade the clergy to practice falconry.
Considered the noblest form of hunting, falconry went on to become the hallmark of emperors, kings and princes all over the world.
The Middle Ages were undoubtedly the golden era of falconry in Portugal when new techniques were developed by the elite. It was also during this period that falconry was no longer just a form of hunting and became a favourite pastime among the aristocracy, or the ‘play and fun of princes and kings’ as described by a chronicler at that time.
Its heyday was in the 14th century during the reign of King Fernando I who commissioned Pêro Menino to publish a book on the subject covering issues related to the birds’ health and wellbeing.
Falconry has been inscribed in UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, with Portugal included amongst the eighteen countries most associated with this rare form of nature conservation, cultural heritage and social engagement within local communities.
One of best places to see falconry displays in Portugal is at the Royal Falconry (Falcoaria Real) in Salvaterra de Magos (indicated on the map below), a pleasant town located around 60km north-east of Lisbon. The Portuguese Royal Family would spend long periods there and in the 18th century, King José ordered the construction of a falconry centre, which became a meeting place for falconers from all over Europe. Designed in the Pombaline style by architect Carlos Mardel, and inspired by Dutch falconry centres of the time, the building is unique in the Iberian Peninsula and a genuine showcase of one of the world’s most ancient customs.