Getting close to birds of prey on a special experience day at Newent
PUBLISHED: 16:58 19 June 2012 | UPDATED: 10:36 21 February 2013
Katie Jarvis's interest in birds of prey was sparked as a child reading The Sword in the Stone.<br/>Her childhood dream is realised on a special experience day at Newent. Read her account here...
She also welcomes hoards of school children into her centre, using the birds to teach them about all aspects of their world. You can talk about geography via the steppe eagle, which migrates 8,000 miles from Russia to South Africa; you can talkabout maths in the weighing room, where we weigh all the birds every day.There are huge amounts of information we can pass on here.They can certainly do that.
As I stand later, holding Boomslang the whitefaced scops owl with the mesmeric eyes (supporting him with two arms; he weighs a ton after a while), I marvel at natural selection; a process that turned a bundle of cells into birds so finely fitted to their environment. If I were a bird of prey, Id want to bea soaring bird, Jemima says. Lightwing-loading and long lived. Id be a griffin vulture, living in the Pyrenees and moving down to Africa in the winter. Or, in the light of the dangers out there, safely in Newent. Whata wonderful life-form; what a wonderful life.
The International Centre for Birds of Preyis at Boulsdon House, Newent, GL18 1JJ,01531 820286; www.icbp.org, and isopen seven days a week, from 10,30am-5.30pm (closed December and January).
There are four of us today on one of Jemimas birds of prey experiencedays: a young lady for whom this is a birthday present; a lawyer who fancied doing something different; a journalist specialising in birds; and me. My interest was sparked as a child reading TH Whites The Sword in the Stone, where the young Arthur is turned by his tutor the magician, Merlyn intoa hunting bird and put in the Mews with the other birds for the night. Here, he learns at first-hand about the etiquette of falconry, the power, the fear, the ruthlessness and the skill: enough to fire any childs imagination. And now, here I am, staring one of these creatures straight in the eye.
Ive been told not to reach out and touch it as it sits, perched on my arm of course, I understand: apart fromanything else, Id disturb its natural oil balance. But it takes an iron effort of will not to be able to discover for myself the feel of the feathers stranded like fine tooth combs. Later on, when Im holding Casper, a Gyr-Saker hybridfalcon, the snowy feathers are even more alluring; who would have thought that white came in so many different shades. These birds, which are so attuned to their senses, stimulate and provoke every other creatures senses, too, whether admiring human orshivering quarry.
But no matter what the costs, you couldnt imagine Jemima Parry-Jones wanting to do anything different. She grew up surrounded by animals guinea pigs, rabbits, horses, a tame deer and both her great uncle (the ornithologist Captain Charles Knight) and her father, Phillip Glasier, were professional falconers, My father worked as a falconer for an actor called James Robertson Justice (perhaps best knownas the booming surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt in the Doctor comedy films). He was quite a character; I remember to this day hed have a raw egg in a whisky for breakfast each morning, and drink Roses lime juice neat; my father got into the (lime-juice) habit, as did I, which is why I can tell you its not as strong as it used to be, she says, in her entertainingly dry style. In those pre-licensing days, Phillip would take peregrines young from the nest in the wild and train them to hunt. His knowledge was vastly respected and widely known; Robertson Justice would host grouse-hawking sessions on the Scottish moors, frequented by royalty such as Princes Philip and Charles, as well as other famous actors. But Phillips real desire was to teach the art of falconry. Its a skill that dates back at least 3,000 years, probably introduced to Europe around 400 AD by the invading Huns. It became the sport of royalty King John was a famous proponent though the poor ,too, relied on hawks to hunt for food. In 1966, Phillip had the family pile their possessions into vans including 12 birds, a deer and a donkey and move from the family home in Dorset to Newent, where he duly opened his falconry centre. He wanted people to do it properly. If you read books like Kes or TH Whites The Goshawk, they nearly always end up with a bird dying, Jemima says.
If you train a dog or a horse badly, you usually just get a badly behaved one; but if you train a bird of prey badly, you may well end up with a dead one.
Though the world of conservation was a pale shadow of todays focused efforts, he was a man ahead of his time. When a yellow-billed kite arrived in an orange box at Gloucester station in the most appalling condition, Phillip nursed it back to health. He was also focused on breeding these birds in captivity an ambition that was scoffed at by many. He knew better; in fact, he was behind the first artificial insemination of a golden eagle.Though he and Jemima didnt always see eye-to-eye, he did pass on his passion and his ideals.
As well as running the centre, shes currently working in India to save the indigenous vultures. Theyre down to 11,000 birds probably from 40 million, she says, sadly. Its not easy for people to understand they have a value in a country where everybodys as thin as a rake and struggling to keep going, but they were hugely useful at clearing up cattle. Now there are so few, theres a huge problem with feral dogs and rabies.
I nowknow what its like to be avole: uncomfortable.
I stand, transfixed, eyes rivetedon the grey of the sky as a fleet shadowswoops towards me. Its an effortlessflight but its as purposeful andunavoidable as a missile locked ontotarget.
As it gets nearer, I can see the chestnut hues, the yellow talons, the ruthless beak of a Harris Hawk; and, as Im not a vole, Im free to admire its brute strength strangely coupled with delicate gracefulness. For Domino, as he is named, is not after me thank God but after the raw meat on my carefully gloved, outstretched and (it has to be said) slightly nervous hand. I neednt worry. He flies in like the predator he is and lands like a feather.
Ah, a feather, says Jemima Parry-Jones, author, conservationist, lecturer,and all-round expert on birds of prey.Did you know that, if you took all thefeathers and all the bones from a bird,the feathers would weigh more than thebones do?I didnt, no. But thats why Im hereat Jemimas International Birds of PreyCentre in Newent, to learn more aboutthese razor-visioned, sure-footed,soaring raptors; creatures whoselooming overhead shapes must fill thenightmares of twitching vertebrates;yet creatures whose own doom isequally a hovering presence: pesticides,power lines, poaching and habitat-lossare just some of the shadows thatdarken their existence.
The four of us stand in a square on apatch of the open ground as different birds of prey fly from one to the other Bush Viper, a magnificently-winged yellow-billed kite; Moccasin, a wise looking spectacled owl; and greedy Domino, who has to be told when hes eaten enough. (Weight management is a crucial element of maintaining healthy birds of prey.) The excitement mounts as we are taken down into woodland. Despite us being semi hiddenby a panoply of trees, its no problem for Domino; he swoops to find us (or, rather, he is lured by the drool-inducing raw meat), zigzagging between miscellaneous branches like a downhill skier on a slalom.
The centre where Domino lives is home to more than 80 different specie sof birds of prey and owls. Theres the Hawk Walk, where most of the trained birds are kept peregrine, goshawk, Stellers Sea Eagle, American Kestrel, to name but a few, who take it in turns to do flying displays; theres the Owl Courtyard and the Eagle Barn (with its fascinating vultures), and there are falcons, kites, buzzards in other enclosure blocks. And for the staff who work here, this is no ordinary job.Daily tasks include gutting rats and preparing day-old chicks for the restaurant (birds of prey only; thecustomer equivalent has a completely different menu).Indeed, the food bill for these birds comes it at around 1,100 a month on average, while vet bills reach an equally staggering annual total of 12,000.