Interview: Jemima Parry-Jones, International Centre for Birds of Prey in Newent
PUBLISHED: 10:25 20 August 2019 | UPDATED: 10:25 20 August 2019
© Thousand Word Media
Dead mice, voles and rat tails - they're all part of the daily routine of conservationist Jemima Parry-Jones
Jemima Parry-Jones runs the International Centre for Birds of Prey, near Newent, established by her father, expert falconer Phillip Glasier, in the 1960s. With its 250 birds, flying demonstrations and experience days, it's a hugely popular visitor attraction. But it's far more besides. In 1999, Jemima was awarded an MBE for services to bird conservation. She works with threatened species the world over, including the vultures of South Asia and Africa, saker falcons and vultures in Bulgaria, and the northern spotted owl in America and Canada. Moreover, the centre leads the world in the breeding of captive birds of prey.
Jemima has helped the conservation world in more unusual ways, too. When the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust discovered their female spoon-billed sandpipers - one of the most threatened birds on the planet - needed more calcium successfully to breed, they approached Jemima for leftover mouse bones.
"I explained that was tricky because my birds of prey absorb all the calcium; there's nothing left. But we do feed them rats with the tails cut off because, otherwise, the birds just leave them anyway.
"So we saved two carrier-bagsful of tails. Hopefully, the tiny tail-bones from the rats that are fed to our large birds of prey are now benefiting spoon-billed sandpipers at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust!"
Where do you live and why?
I live just outside Cliffords Mesne in an area called Great Boulsdon, in an eight-bedroom Victorian house...which is probably fractionally too big for one person! (Though we do use it for meetings and courses, too.) When I was 17, my father wanted to start a centre open to the public, so he bought this place. Believe it or not, he paid £11,400 for just under 12 acres, plus the house. He was fanatical about falconry and flying birds; he was also fanatical about doing it right. His uncle, Captain Knight, had kept falconry going when it very nearly died out at the turn of the century. Captain Knight had a very famous golden eagle called Mr Ramshaw, given to him by London Zoo. It would even go with him on lecture tours to America, and ended up being on a ship that got hit - I guess during the war - and abandoned. It didn't sink but was towed back a week later with the eagle still in it. By the time my great uncle got it back, the eagle was very annoyed and very hungry!
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
Since 1966. We're actually on the edge of the Cotswolds, at the base of May Hill. When my father opened the place, he didn't think about accessibility for the public. Yet we had people from the off: half a crown for adults and one and thruppence for children; 60 birds when we started, and 250 now.
What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
Lovely weather and lots of nice visitors - and I stress nice - who are interested. We have, in this country, between 60 and 70 million people. If all of them went to Symonds Yat to see the wild peregrines, it would be very bad for the countryside. And, if you do go, there's no guarantee you're not going to see one sitting on a rock for 12 hours, because they do. We can show visitors birds doing what they would do in the wild, without actually killing something, in a controlled environment. A top predator is always interesting to the general public: it's dynamic; it's exciting. And it's one of the best barometers for what's happening in the environment. Right now, we have a huge decline in little owls and kestrels, which are quite reliant on insects. If we don't stop wiping out insects, we are going to kill the planet.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I'd move this place to somewhere easily accessible to visitors, with lots of land, and enough space to build a huge cliff and have our vultures living in one place. South Asia lost 40 million vultures over a 20-year period because of a drug called Diclofenac [used to treat cattle]. It was accidental, unlike Africa where there is poisoning on purpose.
But nature abhors a vacuum, and in India that gap is slowly being filled by feral dogs carrying rabies; 25,000 people a year die of rabies. What's more, the dogs don't eat as much as the vultures did, so you've got much more pollution in waterways; more dead animals lying around. Last year, we raised £2,000 selling vulture badges, which paid for four kits in Africa to clear up in a poison event and rescue any birds that hadn't died. It also pays for training so locals can get involved and begin to understand.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
I think people are mad if they downsize. You spend all your life getting the things you like around you; then you downsize to a grotty little bungalow. Bugger that for a game of soldiers! I'd upsize. Also, I have six labradors. As it is, I don't get a seat in my sitting room; the two sofas are covered in dogs.
Where's the best pub in the area?
I did go for a really nice meal the other day at the Moody Cow - which is actually in Herefordshire [Upton Bishop]. We also go to the Kilcot [Newent]. But I don't really have downtime for things like that: I work seven days a week, minimum of 10 hours a day. I don't know how to stop.
And the best place to eat?
The café and shop here are doing very well. Jimmy [Lane, café manager] is very keen on having it all 'local'. And we use Vegware for the plates, the cutlery, the cups - the whole lot - which goes for composting We had a major revamp last year; I was mixing concrete and wheeling it down in a wheelbarrow, and Adam [Bloch, operations manager] and Holly [Cale, the centre's curator] were laying the floor!
What would you do for a special occasion?
We do experience days, which are great as gifts for special occasions. Some places will plonk a bird on your fist at the end of a flying demonstration or let you take a selfie with a bird. We don't do that. It makes the whole thing appear too easy. You can buy a barn owl for £50, so long as it's got the right paperwork; in fact, you could go out and buy a golden eagle. I would like to see people having to pass a test of ability and have their housing looked at before they were allowed to have a bird.
A half-day or a day with us is a lovely experience; but it usually puts people off [owning a bird] because they go: 'My god! This is quite a lot of hard work'. Which is exactly what we want.
If one of our birds flies off, we're after it until we get it back - and that could be three days, in all weathers. They're nearly all wearing a transmitter. But I had a bird here in 1976, when we had that very hot summer and there were cloud streets reaching 150 knots; she went from here at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and was in North Yorkshire at 11 o'clock the next morning. A steppe eagle on a good migrating day can do 500 miles.
What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?
It's beautiful, relatively unspoiled, and a great tourist attraction. It wasn't until that last big foot and mouth outbreak, when that idiot Tony Blair said, 'Don't go into the countryside!', that the country realised how important tourism was to it.
... and the worst?
We're not far enough into the Cotswolds to make the sort of money I need to make!
Which shop could you not live without?
Easy! Pioneer in Ledbury where I get my dog food.
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
For the smaller birds: mice and voles. And day-old cockerels, which they sadly call 'hatchery waste'. (The day they work out how to sex them in the egg, in a way that is financially viable, is the day we're in trouble; we use 900 a day.) Then we have mice and rats - occasionally guinea pigs - quail and rabbits. We can't accept shot rabbits because of the lead. The shooting-people really need to stop using lead. It's not only killing a lot of birds of prey; it's still killing huge numbers of ducks. AND HUMAN BEINGS ARE EATING IT! How stupid can you be? We don't put it in paint or petrol or pencils or pipes; but we eat it.
What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
A view with no power-lines or pylons. Driving here from Gloucester, you pass a transformer with two dead buzzards hanging from it. My perfect view would also have updraughts from a nice bank; or, in summer, a thermal off a wheat field. Then my bird would be able to soar effortlessly.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds...
Red kites, which are beginning to come over;
Kestrels, which you do see a lot on the Cotswolds. (I can remember when you drove along any big road, in the summer when kestrels were hunting, you'd see one every mile or two. I drove up to Yorkshire the other day and back and we saw only four. They've had a 40 percent decline in England and Wales and are still on the down);
And insects. (Remember when you used to have a windscreen covered in them in summer? Not now - and that should be a warning to us all.)
David Attenborough was right: human beings are a plague.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
I'd never forget to help insects. Look and see what plants there are that insects like, and plant them. I have a winter honeysuckle - an incredibly boring plant for 90 percent of the year but, in January, it gets these gorgeous tiny flowers. On a sunny day, the whole thing is covered in bees.
Starter homes or executive properties?
I'd like to see far more use of old, derelict, empty buildings in towns and cities. Why aren't we caring for them? And, as for this habit of [developers] putting nets over hedges and trees… It's disgusting and should be made illegal yesterday.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
If you want to view birds, then:
Wotton-under-Edge. They've got an eagle owl that's been living around there for years; he comes into the town every spring and tries to give dead rabbits to the people who live there.
Some of the land Oxford colleges own is stunning;
And any of the hills around Swindon.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
I spend six weeks of the year abroad, usually in places like India and Nepal, mainly doing work with vultures. When I lived in South Carolina for three years and was missing it here, I watched English television and listened for the noise of wood pigeons. Smells and noises are often more evocative than things you see.
Have you a favourite walk?
I love going over the top of May Hill. When it's misty, there's a clump of trees that you can hear before you can see.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
We have a really interesting event here - Birds In The Park Falconry Weekend - on September 7 and 8. It's a mixture of history, because falconry is a 4,000-year-old sport; conservation, because you will hear about things that are pertinent to birds of prey and also to the human race. And the setting is gorgeous.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I'd be a sparrowhawk, whipping in and out of trees. Nobody likes you very much but you don't care.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
I used to have an eagle owl called Mozart, who lived until he was 38 - we bred him. As a chick, he would come with me on the Underground to the Royal Academy of Music, where I was studying in the 70s. That's how he got his name.
Whenever we had parties of visually-impaired children here, he would let them stroke him. We don't normally let people touch birds because it doesn't do them a lot of good and most of them don't like it. But we made an exception with Mozart and the children. Sometimes, you couldn't see him for the hands all over him. He died about five years ago, and is buried in the hawk walk, where there's a stone for him.
The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?
Why would you want to modernize them?!?
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
I'd rather have a gin - or some Prosecco - with somebody who's really interested in birds of prey. Who thinks we're doing a great job. And is very rich!
The International Centre for Birds of Prey is at Boulsdon House, Newent GL18 1JJ
Tel: 01531 820286
For more information, including the Birds In The Park Falconry Weekend (September 7 and 8), visit icbp.org.