By Olivia Davies
“Being able to work so closely with such magnificent birds is an honour. I’ve always loved birds and wanted to work with them ever since I was young. When I first visited a flying show when I was eleven, I was so fascinated by the bond between bird and falconer that I decided I wanted to work with birds of prey. It’s paramount that we care for birds of prey as they are such an important part of our ecosystem, as they help maintain the health of the environment by removing sick and injured animals and keep certain populations under control. Who wouldn’t want to see such amazing birds soaring in our skies!”
-Apprentice Falconer Celyn Thomas, The British Bird of Prey Centre
Apex predators such as birds of prey are key indicators of a healthy environment. Just like any creature, great and small, they play a vital role in the biodiversity of the planet and therefore our own wellbeing. This is why it is a high priority that they are protected.
Birds are more than just creatures left over from the prehistoric time of the dinosaurs. They have special, unique characters and are very loving animals.
Whilst researching this article, I spent time at the British Bird of Prey Centre in Carmarthenshire and saw first hand just how special and unique these birds are and how much love and respect the professionals that work there have for each bird.
The centre is home to a number of birds of prey, including Rusty the long eared owl and Saffron the red kite and many others. “Rusty gets very excited when it is his time to come out and fly and can be seen ‘dancing’. More recently he has become a little thief when he stole someone’s teddy in our show.” -Emma Hill
Each time Rusty was flown, the falconers would have to warn those in the crowd to hide anything fluffy as Rusty would snatch and attack it. Saffron is one of the four red kites at the centre. When I was observing Celyn putting Saffron back in her avary, Celyn loosened the jesses on her glove and then let Saffron pull out the rest. Celyn exclaimed, “she likes to pull out the jesses herself.”
The centre is also a workplace for those who care deeply for these raptors and dedicate their time to looking after them, for example husband and wife team Alex and Emma Hill. Many handlers have an extremely close bond with the raptors, Enzo for instance, will often only be handled by Emma.
The centre is dedicated to the conservation of these spectacular birds and to educate the public on each raptor. Each day there are two flying shows, where people come and learn. Falconers fly a variety of birds for the visitors and explain to them each birds characteristics and abilities.
Education on these bird species can have a massive effect when it comes to conservation. Many people do not get the chance to experience birds of prey up close and so demonstrating to them the beauty of the birds can encourage a greater understanding and respect, which in turn promotes the protection of each species.
“Our aim is to promote the conservation of these birds through education. Raptors play an important ecological role in maintaining environmental health, so it is vital they are protected.”
-Emma Hill, Director of the British Bird of Prey Centre
“ Each of the birds have their own personalities and it’s very much on their terms. You develop a bond with them, as they do with you and it’s such an extraordinary feeling when you get to fly them.”
-Apprentice Falconer Poppy Thomas, The British Bird of Prey Centre (above)
There are more than twenty raptors that call the British Bird of Prey centre home. Each with its own unique character. I spent one of my mornings with Poppy Thomas, a falconer at the centre. I found it so intriguing to watch as she gave each of the birds their morning feed and weigh in. As she took some of the owls out of their aviaries, she connected with them by holding out her hand. The owls (Troy the tawny owl and Allan the barn owl) nibbled her finger tenderly and made a cute, squeaky chirping noise in happiness. It melted my heart and really reminded me of my own pet cats. It opened my mind to how these animals have a soul, a conscience; I’d even go as far as saying they have love for the falconers.
The centre also has a resident white-tailed sea eagle and a golden eagle. These are raptors of particular interest to many, as they used to call our Welsh landscape home. Many people have the misconception that eagles prey on livestock, small pets and even toddlers and so in the past they have been hunted down.
She is a giant bird and weighs five kilograms, this does not sound much but imagine holding that on one arm! White-tailed sea eagles’ wingspan can start at 1.8m and be as large as 2.4m. They are often known as ‘the flying barn door’ as when one is flying, their wings have a huge rectangular look to them.
As people developed Wales more and more, the eagles lost their habitat. The combination of human persecution and habitat loss eventually made eagles unheard of in the Welsh landscape. The British Bird of Prey centre works closely with Sophie Lee-Lane, the director of Eagle Reintroduction Wales, a programme developed by Lane to try and get these apex predators back in Wales. If the project is successful, it could have brilliant effects on Wales’ biodiversity, benefitting the wildlife and countryside greatly. By restoring an apex predator such as the white-tailed sea eagle or golden eagle into a habitat, it brings about a balance and equilibrium that we need and should have always been there.
Atlantis is the name of the white-tailed sea eagle at the centre. Her story is a bit of a sad one, she was seized at customs when someone was trying to smuggle her. She was initially going to be used in the Eagle Reintroduction Wales programme, but she ended up disliking her mate so a new candidate is on the cards.
The British Bird of Prey Centre was started up by Emma and Alex Hill. In 2008 Alex met Emma at a friend’s wedding at Picton Castle and introduced her to birds of prey.
“After a long distance relationship for a year and a year away travelling we returned to Pembrokeshire with ideas and plans to make Pembrokeshire the place to come to fly birds of prey in the UK.”
-Emma Hill, Director of the British Bird of Prey Centre
In July 2013, Emma gave up her job to join Alex full time in an attempt to help make the dream a reality. In June 2018 The British Bird of Prey Centre opened at The National Botanic Garden of Wales.