Harris Hawk close up

I became interested in birds of prey after a falconer brought one to my school and flew it across the hall. I was thrilled.

Years later I wanted a different sort of holiday. One that no one else in my family, or amongst my friends had done and on searching through the British Tourist Board book, found a course down in Stelling Minnis at the British School of Falconry with Steve and Emma Ford.

I had a series of marvellous holidays/courses/and hunting experiences with them over the years – a beginner’s, advanced, an owl, and eagle course and then hunting weeks, culminating in being a guinea pig for their new falconry venture attached to Gleneagles. Which was an extraordinary experience and one of which I have very fond memories. It became more expensive to go hunting with them, and slowly they drifted away and I was left to find a new place where I could handle a bird, and perhaps enjoy the hunt once more.

The first morning on my second week with the BSF, I was disconcerted to be told that I would be taking a bird out with me in the afternoon to hunt rabbits.

I had thought I would only be handling the birds, in a similar fashion to the way I had on the beginner’s course.

That had culminated with Bloggins flying back to me from a tree after a week of theory in the mornings and the more practical hands on manning and training in the afternoons. He, of course, had known more about the process than I ever did (or perhaps still do), and was returning back to me, having been cast into the tree, almost before I had realised he had reached it.

My second week had been detailed in a leaflet too. The booklet, though had said nothing about hunting and having been brought up in suburbia with a love of all things fluffy, (but with very little practical or sensible knowledge), I really wasn’t sure what I had got myself into.

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Late that afternoon I walked back up the hill, with a bird on my fist. She was totally uninterested in my lack of experience, or the pleasure that she was giving me. Feet gripping my glove and body moving to compensate for my stride as I walked up the hill, she was alert to any small creature that just might bolt out from the grass.

Stewart the falconer who worked with Steve and Emma looked across and asked if I had enjoyed myself. To which I had to reply that I had, I had loved it. He laughed and said that he had known the afternoon had been a success, because of the inane grin that was spread across my face. He added that it was a very different physiognomy from that of the morning!

Birds of prey have an innate something. Each and everyone has its own personality as well as being some of the most perfectly designed creatures on the earth. Their entire being is designed and developed for the sole purpose of their existence and it is always a privilege for me to handle one.

My favourite, is the bird that is on my fist, or was last on my fist, (whether a good hunter or not), though it has to be admitted that one or two stand out in my memory. Bloggins was a common buzzard. Sebastian, a golden eagle and Gilbert a harris hawk, (who once fell into one of the canals around Romney Marsh many years ago, after trying to take on a swan). More recently Spud, a tawny owl, Ramsay another harris hawk and, of course Tiny the (then) juvenile condor.Image

The pleasure I have, is like nothing else I have ever come across and over the years I have enjoyed a variety of different things.

I have been flown in two aerobatic displays, fired a series of small hand guns up to a Magnum, taken the controls of a glider, slid down a very long zip wire, been snorkelling, enjoyed a flight in a jet, blown glass (not very well), and enjoyed a hack when both my mount and I have galloped together, exhilarated, even though that had not been my intention at the start of the ride.

I have found that only ‘one’ (if I may combine them) activity has constantly given me pleasure over the years – hawking and falconry.Harris's in tree

I don’t remember where I heard of the English School of Falconry. It may have been through seeing a display at a show. I believe the way in which birds are displayed and kept gives a good indication of the type of people concerned and I used to visit shows and take the details of any companies that seemed to me to care for their avian charges; rather than  being just concerned with the monetary aspect of their business.

The first time I visited Phil and Maggie I remember driving past the garden of their house and seeing a field of birds. Each with a block or bow perch every three foot or so apart and knew I had come to the right place. Since then I have been back and forth to their various sites. The last was at The Shuttleworth Collection and now they have moved to their new site at Herrings Green Farm, Wilstead.

In 2001 and again a few years later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The Bird of Prey Centre has been a great source of solace of me and continues to give me an immense pleasure. It is a very special place.

The Bird of Prey Centre has until recently been split through the year; largely between the Falconry and Hawking season (October to February) and the rest of the year providing excellent displays, educational visits, experiences, corporate, and photographic days. This has now been enlarged and they are now offering a wide range of Field Sports in addition to their previous repertoire.

Primarily the reason why The Bird of Prey Centre is such an extraordinary place is the result of the people who own, run and keep it going. The passion that drives the centre is consummate – every visit I have had has added to my knowledge and enjoyment of the birds, of falconry and hawking. I always come away with a smile on my face, tired but full of the day and its adventures. Phil, Maggie and Emma are straight talking people who are obsessed by what they do and over the years have built a centre that is full of unique people, and an astonishing range of birds from Duggie the northern hawk owl to Tiny the aforementioned condor

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Many of the species they breed there are endangered and are listed on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) lists and it is a wonderful opportunity when you visit the centre to be able to make eyeball to eyeball contact with some of these superb birds.

Hawking and falconry are not one of the essential industries for this country. They provide nothing (or very little) to the economy or to reducing our national debt.

Hawking and falconry are not then very crucial, except for one or two vital things.

Falconers have an intrinsic need to care for the environment, birds of prey, and for their quarry. All of which are actually essential to the countryside, if not to industry.

If we don’t look after the environment, birds of prey and the general natural history of this country and, if it then becomes largely mechanical and industrial, it will surely lose part of its soul.

There is nothing like a bird flying to the fist, whether for the first time, or the hundredth.

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I have heard the sound of the wind whistle through the slit in a hawk’s bell.

I have smelt the peculiar musty aroma that seems to permeate around birds of prey.

The feeling of the grip of a bird sitting on my fist still makes me smile in a strangely inane fashion and to have one rouse and settle on my fist, tucking one foot up into her breast feathers gives me enormous pleasure.

At present, due to factors beyond their control, the Bird of Prey Centre is unable to provide their usual outstanding series of experiences. In due course this will be resolved and normal service will resume.

Now though, is the time to book and to organise a trip to the centre.

If you have never had an owl swivel her head to look at something over its shoulder or keep it’s head stationary as its body rises and falls, as you raise and lower your fist.

Never had a hawk rouse and fluff its feathers and call so that your left ear rings.

If you have never had a bird shuffle along and shelter under your shoulder as the rain begins to fall.

Never had a hawk croon softly, so that when you croon back he seems to reply (and who says he doesn’t?)

If you have never had a bird preen, then rouse itself preparatory to being cast into the wind, and if you have never had a bird fly back to you across a muddy large field, wings working hard as it returns to your fist tired at the end of a day’s hunt, then frankly, you haven’t lived.

Contact the Bird of Prey Centre (the details are below) and ask about their experience days.

At the moment you can enjoy a day of Field Sports (clay pigeon shooting, archery, knife throwing, shooting and dog handling).

Harris on CadgeLater on in the year, however, you will be able to gaze into the golden-ringed dark depths of an owl’s eyes, feel the grip of an eagle’s feet, admire the beautiful lines of a falcon, have your ears ring from a scream of a hawk sitting proudly on your fist, and have the pleasure of a bird return to your fist at the end of an extremely enjoyable and satisfying Ultimate Hawking Day.

You can adopt one of the birds and know you are supporting a superb centre and more importantly, that you are helping to preserve not only a superb institution, but also these extraordinary and gorgeous birds.

You won’t be disappointed and will have photographs that you will treasure and memories that will last forever.

The Bird of Prey Centre’s details are as follows:Image

The English School of Falconry

Herrings Green Farm

Wilstead, Bedfordshire MK45 3DT

Tel. 01767 627527

falconry.centre@btconnect.com

http://www.birdsofpreycentre.co.uk/