Lamborghinis, Arab Stallions And A Caravan In North East England: The Amazing Life Of The Man Who Breeds Falcons For Gulf Royals
Close, who is dressed in dark trousers, a grey and yellow-striped sweater and grey slip-ons, and speaks in a thick Geordie accent, a cigarette permanently between his fingers, is talking, with calm self-assurance, about falcon racing. And he’s right.
The man is the multi-millionaire owner of Armthorpe Falcons, home to his sport-dominating Marra Falcons. Since 2005, his falcons have outpaced the competition in tournaments across the Middle East, earning their Arab owners millions of dirhams, and making Close a rich man in the process.
Out of the seven prestigious President’s Cup Falcon Competitions held to date, Bryn’s birds have won six. In the December 2017-February 2018 season, Bryn’s birds won the Abu Dhabi royal family six of the top 10 spots in the competition, and went on to win the top spot in the January 2019 edition of the competition. $1.6 million, that’s no small thing. Close was comfortably rewarded for his efforts with a brand new Nissan Patrol V8.
Not that he relies on these generous hand-outs. In the past he has been offered $1.3 million for a single bird, and, in 2016, he sold his Doncaster-based business to the Abu Dhabi royal family for $5 million, with a five-year contract to personally continue raising falcons for them. He also owns a Rolls Royce, a lime green Lamborghini (licence plate: FAII CON), and his own Arab stallion.
What’s more, whenever he ventures away from the heady heights of England’s north east to the Middle East, Close is the guest of honour. Gold Rolls Royces pick him up from the airport. He is put up at the $22,000 per night presidential suite of the Emirates Palace, and has been the guest of the royal family at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Yet, the man himself maintains, he isn’t in it for the cash, just the birds.
“I’m a multi-millionaire, but my feet are on the ground,” he says. “I don’t live a lavish lifestyle. [In the Middle East] they might put me on a pedestal, but I’m Joe Bloggs over here. I don’t spend money on clothes, I eat at the local Chinese restaurant…I do it all for the birds. I love them, and they love me.”
The Middle East’s own love affair with falcons dates back to at least 2000BC, when the birds were used for hunting by indigenous Bedouin tribes. But, over time, as rich falconers exhausted the natural prey around the cities of the UAE, they began venturing further afield to destinations including Pakistan, Iran, and Morocco.
As time went by, falcon racing quickly spread from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Kuwait and throughout the Middle East. In 2018, Saudi Arabia held its first falcon racing tournament.
Soon, Close believes, its popularity in the Middle East will outstrip even the other traditional sports of horse racing and camel racing.
There are three categories of falcon racing: the Sheikh, Professional, and Public. In the same way your mates and you might head to the park for a game of football, the Public class lets the man in the street train and race his own falcon in low-stakes surrounds. The Professional class is a step up, but it is the Sheikh class which the serious (and vastly wealthy) competitors enter. This, of course, is where Close’s falcons compete.
“The Sheikh class birds get the best of everything,” he explains. “Trainers, food – the average man couldn’t afford that. It’s like the Premiership in football.”
The reason his birds are so well regarded is their speed. To boil falcon racing down to its core thesis, the faster the bird, the better your chances of winning the race. Earlier this year, one of Close’s falcons raced against a small plane trailing a lure of quail. The plane runs through a course of inflatable obstacles, the bird following behind. Close’s bird, wings back, body sleek and low to the ground, tore after the plane, clocking a speed of 100km/h – a new course record. In races, his birds have been known to hit 121km/h.
Close’s falcons are primarily gyr falcons, traditionally found across North America, Europe and Asia. The female is the largest, with a maximum wingspan of 160cm, and tipping the scales at a max weight of 2.1kg. Males, meanwhile, clock up a max wingspan of 130cm, with a maximum weight of 1.4kg. Both males and females are raced, and while younger falcons are the main attraction each season, should a bird do well, it will enjoy a life of luxury and be put out to compete year after year.
Not only are Close’s birds treated like Premier League footballers or NBA stars, they get to fly like them, too; a few years ago, photos showing an entire private jet occupied by gyr falcons made headlines around the world.
“The birds had been racing in Abu Dhabi and were being flown to Saudi Arabia,” Close elaborates. “They didn’t want to stress them out by putting them in the hold, with their eyes covered, so they gave them seats in the cabin.” Naturally.
If Close appreciates the irony that birds reared by a formerly homeless man would one day be flown in private jets, he doesn’t mention it. Born in 1954 on the banks of the river Tyne, Newcastle, Close was the fourth of eight siblings brought up in a two-room flat above a shop, without working gas or water, and only one shared toilet.
“I was a d*******,” Close admits of his early years. In fact, it wasn’t long before he was homeless, sleeping rough and stealing from shops to survive. “My dad hit my mother.
I was only a young lad so I knocked him out. After that, I had to leave home,” he explains.
He eventually moved (slightly) south, to the equally economically beleaguered town of Doncaster where he worked for a shop-fitting company until the age of 31. Promised a promotion that eventually went to someone else, Close quit the job, and saved up money to open up a motocross track.
For the first time, all was going well. He bought his first pair of falcons as pets in 1999. Then, in 2008, the credit crunch hit. Looking for a way to invest his money, Close skipped past gold and stocks, and opted for more falcons – a choice he is unable to explain apart for the fact that, “I’ve always been fascinated by animals. I grew up in a concrete jungle. I could have been breeding monkeys.”
Thankfully, the falcons stuck and after selling his house, Close started buying birds from across the world. The secret to picking a race-winning bird of prey? It’s all in the eye. “When I’m looking for new birds, I look for shape. It’s just something I have in my head. I can’t put my finger on it,” he shrugs.
Whatever his method, it works. Some 14 years ago, he sold a falcon to HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and chairman of Dubai Executive Council. Close was out, walking his dog on a Saturday evening, when a representative of the Sheikh called, with an offer to buy every bird Close produced from now on.
“It’s a matter of quality,” he explains. “I sold a falcon to some other people in the Middle East the year before. You sell a falcon to someone and everybody knows about it, especially if it’s a good falcon. They took one falcon, and within two weeks they sent somebody back and he said he’ll take every feather on the place.”
It was a life-changing moment. Since then, every bird Close has raised has been sold in advance.
In 2016, he sold his business to the Abu Dhabi royal family. “We won every race under a different trainer,” he says. “It’s not all down to the trainer. Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t win a Grand Prix in a mini, would he?”
So far, the relationship with the Abu Dhabi royal family appears to be going swimmingly. To Close, everyone is ‘marra’, a Geordie term of endearment meaning mate. To him, his birds are ‘marra’, his friends are ‘marra’, and his customers, including the UAE royals, are ‘marra’.
On his Armthorpe farm – a collection of low green buildings located a 20-minute taxi ride outside of Doncaster – Close is a malevolent king. Ten people work on the plot, providing welcome helping hands for a man who, for much of his 20 years in the business, worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, mostly on his own, snatching a half hour’s of sleep any time he could.
His 250 birds are housed in pairs in a spotless barn. There is a stainless steel kitchen which smells strongly of disinfectant, and is also spotless. You can feed a falcon for as little as a dirham per day, Close explains, but he has spent upwards of $4 per day, and now feeds his falcons fresh quail.
“Everything has to be clinical here,” he explains. “We set an example to everybody else. We take pride in our cleanliness, and giving our birds everything they need from fresh water to the best diets.”
Close is also building a hospital which will be able to monitor his falcons for viruses and infections (like all animals, falcons are at risk of getting sick). There will also be an X-ray machine.
“Falcons have delicate wings, and they bash into things,” he explains. Thankfully, with proper treatment, a falcon can make a full recovery from a broken wing and be back to dominating high-stakes desert races within weeks.
But, as with all livestock, it is impossible to fully ensure a falcon’s health. Close recounts how he has previously spent around $50,000 on a pair of falcons, only for them to die a few months later. Sometimes, he acknowledges, this is just how it goes. “You get very attached to them,” he says sadly. “All my falcons love me. I’m more passionate than anybody you’d ever know about falcons.”
To demonstrate, Close takes GQ in to see more birds housed in outside huts. As soon as he enters, the birds start screeching – imagine a chicken’s squark played on fast forward, a sort of high-tempo, high-pitched display of avian enthusiasm. The birds bob up and down, preen their feathers, push their beaks through the bars of their cages.
Close goes into one pen and pets a beautiful white female. “Eh then girl, are you better now, eh?” he asks of her, as you might of a child, or a beloved pet.
The falcon spies GQ watching from outside and shoots across the pen in a flash, its curved beak grasping the bars, its yellow eyes watching. It is then we notice the bloody pulp and bone fragments in the cage – it has just been feeding time.
Some of the birds are predominantly white, some have a beautiful grey down over white or black feathers. These are the older birds, from which the yearly supply of new racers is bred.
“See that bird there,” Close says, pointing out a particularly large specimen, “you can’t even put a value on it. It’s absolutely priceless. He’s 17 years old now. He’s won everything. Everything.”
With so many invaluable and much-loved birds on the property, the security measures might seem excessive. Not so. A bank of monitors in his office shows each bird’s cage, but this is as much to monitor their wellbeing as anything.
“A lot of people are afraid of falcons,” he explains. “[Falcons] will grab a hold of you. I’ve nearly been knocked out by one. It was coming full tilt and hit me on the head. A guy who swings the lure was hit by a falcon and ended up in hospital. It killed the falcon.”
When GQ visits, in early March, Close is gearing up for the busiest part of his year: mating season. Inseminating his birds and monitoring their health is a round-the-clock process lasting for weeks – until recently, Close spent six months of the year living in a static caravan on the grounds. (“It’s all about dedication,” he says.)
Each egg laid during breeding season is numbered so that Close and his team can follow its progress. After 34 days in the incubators, the eggs hatch. It takes another five to six days of hand-feeding before the chicks are put with their parents until they’re ready to be trained.
The birds are then introduced to the hack pen: a large, circular outdoor space with a net ceiling. This is where birds earn their wings once they hit around six to eight weeks old. In the middle of the pen stands a person swinging a lure, often quail, enticing the birds to fly quickly after it, round and round in circles. It is the first part of their training, and essential.
The exact diameter of the space is a trade secret. “Everyone wants to know,” Close says, seriously. “Everyone copies what we do.”
Opening up onto the hack pen are the shuttered trap rooms, where the birds are fed and bathed each day, and also where they are trapped (hence the name) once they are ready to be shipped out to the Middle East, at around 12 weeks old.
While he maintains close relationships with his older, breeding birds, Close tries not to spend too much time with their young offspring. “We try not to let them see us,” he explains. “It’s how I like it. When they go to the Middle East I want them as wild as possible. That’s what makes them keener.”
Once that part of the process is complete, the next stage will normally see the birds shipped out by the end of September – they’ll be ready for the first race in December. Usually they are transported to nearby Manchester airport to be flown out to Abu Dhabi in a commercial 747 or 777 (no private jets on this end of the trip, unfortunately). The birds arrive at their destination that same night.
It is at this stage that the birds’ preparation is handed over to a trainer in the Middle East. Increasingly, Close has been flying out to monitor that process, too. “It’s really intense,” he says. “They train every day.” At this stage, the trainers must prepare the birds to race, even going as far as sleeping in the same room as the falcons to get them used to human interaction. Then, and only then, are they ready to compete.
Before GQ leaves, Close shows us the trophies in his office. There are six or seven, shining and golden, representing just the past year’s races won. “I’ve had to demand these,” he explains. “They want to give you cars, but they don’t give you trophies. I want something for my grandkids to have.”
If he had a trophy for every race his birds have won, Close estimates they would fill his not inconsiderable office, and the next two rooms, at least. “I don’t breed for money,” Close says. “I breed for success. You want to be the best at what you do, and producing winning falcons is what drives me. It started as a hobby, grew to a passion, and now it’s an obsession. But what a lovely obsession to have. Breeding falcons to me isn’t a job, it’s an amazing experience.”
Close will be 68 when his contract with the Abu Dhabi royal family expires in three years’ time. After that, he thinks he will join either his son or daughter in their own breeding businesses. With such a pedigree, the birds there will surely claim more than their own fair share of trophies.
Whatever comes next, Close is suitably proud of the legacy his birds will leave behind.
“Years down the road, when I’m dead and gone, Marra falcons will still be champions,” he says.
GQ gets up to leave. Close has a full day’s work ahead of him. The breeding season is fast approaching and after that, it’s the training season, and then the racing season before it all starts again next year.
“They keep telling me I need to slow down,” Close says in parting, “but I can’t. I’m on a roll.”
Photography: Henry Bourne