Park that Range Rover, forget the country pile and lead your racehorse back to the stable – there's only one status symbol worth owning this year, and it's a bird of prey. But not just any bird of prey: it has to be a falcon, and a particular species at that.
News last week from the RSPB that Britain's falcon population is being threatened by poachers won't be a surprise to those who know how lucrative the falcon market has become. Six years ago the birds, which reach up to 200mph chasing prey and are mainly used for hunting in the UK, came with price tags of around $1400. Now, you'll be lucky to find a peregrine for $7000, experts say, and in the Middle East they swap hands for up to $437,590.
Million dollar birdie
It's the multi-million-pound Middle Eastern market that has given the falcon its new luxury status here, and with the first UK race taking place just three months ago in Stratford upon Avon, they're only set to become more in vogue.
In the United Arab Emirates, it's a premier sport, broadcast on national television, with millions poring over the 400m time trial races. There, the reason falcons are considered more prestigious than Bugattis and Bulgari jewels is their heritage. They're a symbol of power and wealth, and quite literally put food on the tables of those who owned them.
Since the idea of racing them began in Dubai around 14 years ago, the sport has exploded in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with the biggest competition in the world offering huge trophies, $87,520 cars and $1.75 million in prize money. Perhaps it's no surprise the sport is now taking off in America and Europe, too.
Both rich and poor own and race their falcons in categories that define the quality (and therefore price) of the bird; but for the rich, at least, they're not in it for the money, says Bryn Close, owner of Armthorpe Falcons in Doncaster. It's a case of "my falcon's faster than yours" – and when you're already talking about the fastest animals on Earth, that's quick.
Top falcons cross 400m finish lines in around 17 seconds. "Falconers are hugely competitive and it's all about the win," explains Close, gesturing to a life-size photograph of him and a sheikh, both in sunglasses, holding a trophy up to the sky. "In the Middle East, falconers sit with their falcons, talking about falcons all day. They might have $10.5 billion car collections, but they're more obsessed with the birds. We have the Queen on our banknotes, they have the bird."
While falcons are native to every continent but Antarctica, and falcon breeders span the world, it is British falconers who have earned a reputation for being the best – partly because they always win, partly because it's easier to artificially inseminate the birds in the cooler British climate. (Done under strict guidelines for animal welfare.)
Close, a 63-year-old Geordie, might describe himself as "the Fat Controller" but he has become a VIP in the industry thanks to expert breeding, which has created "the Usain Bolts of the falcon world". He's now a multi-millionaire, last year selling his cast of falcons to the Abu Dhabi royal family for a seven-figure sum; not bad for someone who spent time living on the streets as a teenager.
Years later, after making money through a motocross track, he bought his first bird (an owl) as a hobby, before selling his house in order to buy a pair of falcons and try to breed them. These days he's flown business class by sheikhs, put up in presidential suites staffed by butlers and treated "like royalty" by royalty itself.
The Kardashian of birds
Close lives in a caravan full of falcon statues and falcon oil paintings for seven months of the year, "despite having a very nice house down the road", in order to be as close to the birds as possible during breeding season. But with 250 falcons to talk to, there's no chance of Close getting lonely.
"Some falcons are chattier than others," he says, stroking a screeching bird called Mia who has a chunk of bloodied quail dangling from her beak. "But they love me ta bits! That's Silver Lass, that's New Silver Lass, that's Maroney, that's Jeffrey," he says, clucking throatily at the birds as we pass each flapping mass of feathers in the block.
There might be a pet Harris hawk on site called Boris Johnson but you won't find birds named after A-listers like Kim Kardashian here. "They're bonnier than her!" he says, aghast.
There are around 40 different species of falcon but Close breeds only pure peregrine, gyr and sakers, as well as a gyr-peregrine hybrid, which combines the power and speed of both species, resulting in the fastest falcons in the world. Of the 150 falcons which qualified for the premier category of last year's President's Cup in Abu Dhabi, more than half belonged to Close. At his falconry, a car park full of new Range Rovers, plus an armful of Rolex watches and a lime-green Lamborghini with "FAIICON" (sic) plates, help explain just how grateful the sheikhs have been for his birds.
"Falcon racing is now huge worldwide and it's only going to get bigger," Close says. "When I started breeding falcons about 10 years ago there weren't many of us, now there are thousands of falconers. They're just subtler than the owners of jet-skis and yachts because they usually just stick their falcons in their cars and drive them to the countryside to hunt; they don't parade them flashily about. But people are fascinated with both them and the races because it's so new over here."
There's only one downside for wannabe-falconers: the price. You might have to sell your house to afford one, but then, if you start winning races abroad, you could always sleep in your new Range Rover.
The Telegraph, London