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Chapter 06


Professions at Roland Garros

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Ludwig Verschatse
The Roland Garros falconer
Of all the jobs that inspire wonder and curiosity in equal measure, the work of a falconer is undoubtedly near the top of the list. But when it comes to flying birds of prey around the grounds of the most prestigious clay court tennis tournament in the world, the job is nothing short of spellbinding – even for the players themselves.
Ludwig Verschatse and his wife have been working at the Roland Garros tournament since 2012. Armed with their hawks and falcons, their job is to scare away the droves of pigeons that invade the Porte d’Auteuil grounds. In the past, some of the pigeons flew too close to the courts and forced the umpires to replay certain points, only adding to the number of headaches experienced by the spectators, who should be able to enjoy a Grand Slam tournament in the very best conditions. “We weren't getting any complaints from the players, but the pigeons were causing us more and more problems and we wanted to improve the court environment,” explained Rémy Azemar, deputy referee at Roland Garros in charge of the organisation and who was behind the decision to hire Ludwig Verschatse. “We studied the various different options available to us, and examined in particular the possibility of installing boxes that produced sounds to scare away birds but which couldn't be heard by the human ear. In the end, we chose to call on a falconer for the task. Other tournaments like Wimbledon and the Australian Open had already opted for the same solution, which has received a certain amount of interest from the public and the press.” Following an initial test run at the tournament, the success of the methods of the Verschatses proved incontrovertible. The flock of 120 feral pigeons that forage for food in the aisles of the stands flew the coop, while the wood pigeons that travel over the area on a daily basis were kept at a safe distance. Every year since then, the falconers have stepped in to maintain an unsafe space for the pigeons. Belgian-born Ludwig Verschatse has been passionate about mother nature since a very young age, when he spent a number of holidays caravanning with his father, brothers and sisters. He soon developed an undying love for birds of prey and train them to hunt. Despite earning a degree in architecture, he went on to make a career out of falconry. Now based in the French department of Hautes-Pyrénées, where he runs his family business SARL Fauconnerie Merlyn with his wife and two sons, he works year-round to ward off the health hazards posed by pigeons at various sites, which range from small churches to Disneyland Paris.
Some towns and cities also call on his services to restore balance to the local ecosystem by driving away unsanitary birds. As a fan of tennis, particularly of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, it is a real opportunity for him to work at Roland Garros, as well as a source of general curiosity. “I regularly get people asking me a whole host of questions,” explains the falconer. “There is one point that I always insist on to prevent any ill will – in no way do we exterminate the pests. We are only there to scare them away.” To do so, a fortnight before the tournament begins, Ludwig enters the grounds armed with his thick leather glove on which the birds of prey perch. For two weeks, his three Harris hawks, peregrine falcon and two peregrine/gyrfalcon hybrids drive out the pigeons who have made themselves at home in the aisles of the stands. The aim is to create a permanent lingering sense of threat for any other birds tempted to join them. “When the tournament begins, there are no critters left. But when the spectators arrive, the birds come back in to hunt for food.” He then follows the same routine every day. Before nine in the morning, Ludwig and his wife take up their strategic positions around the stadium and send their hawks off to chase away the pigeons perching in the trees and other recesses of the grounds. During the daytime, they look after their creatures, clean their boxes and feed them. Like true athletes, their birds of prey require additional protein and follow a diet that is specially adapted to the fluctuations in their activity levels. After 5 p.m., some 1,000 wood pigeons, who have travelled into Paris in the daytime in search of food, return to roost in their natural habitat, the Bois de Boulogne, which is right next to Roland Garros. It is then time for the falcons to stretch their wings and take centre stage to deter the horde from descending on the stadium. “Falcons are best suited to this job as they fly at the perfect altitude, which is just below where pigeons fly,” explains Ludwig. By ridding the Porte d’Auteuil stadium of its pests, the work of the falconry duo has benefited the organisers, the spectators and of course the players, some of whom have thanked the falconers in person. “Sometimes they come to see us with their family to congratulate us, as well as to watch the birds and to ask us a whole host of questions.” It just goes to show that even the champions of the court admire these champions of the skies.