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A day out at The Falconry Centre at Webbs of Hagley

By Heather Large | Entertainment | Published:

The closest many of us get to a bird of prey is a fleeting glimpse as they fly above us or the sight of a far-off silhouette in the sky.

These majestic creatures have captivated the human imagination for centuries and still continue to wow spectators with their speed, hunting skills and aerial displays today.

And among those who can't get enough of watching and learning about some of nature's best known predators is the passionate team at The Falconry Centre in Hagley.

It's home to more than 80 birds of prey including various species of eagle, vulture, buzzard, owl, falcon and kite native to the UK and from around the world.

As well as raising awareness and education, staff run a breeding programme helping to boost the captive populations of critical species and a rehabilitation unit for wild birds.

"There is something so striking about birds of prey and there is a bit of romance about them. Seeing them fly is an incredible experience and still takes my breath away. They are also incredibly fascinating and there is always something new to learn," says Gem Hover, who works alongside staff members Andy Plant and Fiona Garvey.

Each day at the centre, located beside Webbs (of Hagley) Garden Centre, starts with ensuring the birds are happy and content. They spend each night in the birdhouse, which is called a mews and was traditionally where falconry birds were put when they were moulting.

Unless they are breeding pairs or taking a break from being on display, most will sit out on perches during the day giving visitors the chance to see them up close. "People get the impression from nature shows that birds of prey are always out flying and hunting but the happiest state for a bird of prey is to sit and do nothing," explains Gem, aged 34.

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The birds, who include Aurora the Northern Hawk Owl, Bateleur Eagle Nugget and Tarn the Harris Hawk are flown each day from 1pm and visitors to the centre at that time are able to watch the displays. "We fly the birds whether there are people here or not because they need to be fed and they need to be exercised," says Gem. The centre also runs flying experiences giving people the chance to get even closer to its residents by handling and flying them.

They are fed a diet which includes day-old cockerel chicks, a waste product of the poultry industry, as well as mice, rats and quail and hare. The fish eaters, such as the Stellar's sea eagles, get fish and the vultures may also have some venison.

It's important their diet includes whole prey so they can get adequate nutrition. The meat gives them protein, fur and feathers helps their digestive systems and intestinal organs provide vitamins and minerals.

Full records on each bird are kept including their weight and how often they are flown. They have all been bred in captivity either in this country or abroad which is why they are allowed to be kept and put on display to the public. "The welfare of the birds is our biggest priority - everything we do is about our birds," says Gem.

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As visitors walk around the site, they might be surprised to come across raven Spike. "We have Spike to show that there are birds more intelligent than birds of prey. Raven have the same level of intelligence as a three-year-old child, they can problem solve and use basic tools. Spike can also mimic sounds and will say things like 'good boy Spike. He will also bark and someone has also taught him to burp although they won't admit it," Gem tells us.

The centre, which is supported by a team of volunteers, also helps injured wild birds of prey and each year around 50 are brought to the staff in need of attention and treatment.

By law, they are not allowed on display to the public and have to be kept in either the hospital unit or in off-show aviaries until they have recuperated.

"We don't have the resources to be able to go out to pick up injured birds but members of the public, vets and other rescue centres bring them to us.

"We are able to deal with most of the common injuries ourselves but sometimes birds with more complicated injuries may need to be taken to a vet for specialist treatment.

"We have as little contact with them as possible because we don't want them to imprint on humans. They still need to be afraid of humans and to not be going to them for food if they are to survive back in the wild," explains Gem.

"Tawny owls are the most common birds brought in. They quite often get clipped by cars at night or they fly into buildings. A lot are picked up by the roadside.

"When they have recovered, we take them back to where they were found. The only times we don't are when it's not safe or there isn't sufficient food," she adds.

The team, which is now hoping to raise £2,500 to renovate the hospital block, recently faced a conundrum when male kestrel Nemo was brought to the centre.

"Nemo was found starving, dehydrated and standing in a puddle. He was wearing falconry equipment but there was no ring or microchip so we couldn't trace an owner or a breeder.

"We couldn't prove he was a legal, captive bird but he wasn't showing signs of being a wild bird. He was calling out to us for food, which a wild bird wouldn't do and he immediately recognised the day-old chicks as food, which again a wild bird wouldn't do.

"We had three options. We could release him back into the wild but we believed he would end up starving again because he wouldn't know how to hunt for food. We could keep him in an off-show aviary for the rest of his life but he couldn't be flown. Neither were good options for him.

"The third option was to beg Defra (The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to allow us to use him for display and education purposes and this is what we did.

"We managed to get the correct paperwork to be able to keep him. We did it for his sake because it was the best thing for him. He loves people and he loves flying - you have never seen such a happy kestrel,"Gem tells us.

Fiona, aged 29, who joined the team in December, says it's a special place to work. "I enjoy working at the falconry centre because I love introducing people to our birds of prey, especially on our handling experiences. Compared to other centres I've worked for I love that we can get people up close to see the unique adaptations and personalities of each of our birds, and the variety of species usually means I can show them something they have never seen which makes my day," she adds.

*For more information about the centre or to support the hospital unit appeal go online to www.thefalconrycentre.co.uk

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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