The Raptor and Reptile Centre in Ringwood

Rescuing the owl sanctuary from being flattened in 2003, Lynda Bridges transformed the site into a must-visit attraction in Ringwood, as Carole Varley discovered

This season is a very good time to visit Liberty’s Owl, Raptor and Reptile Centre, not only because of its situation (rather appropriately in Crow Lane) in the leafy New Forest, where the art of falconry has been practised for centuries, but also because now it will be resonating with the sound of new life, the chirps of the big ‘balls of fluff’ that are its baby owls and raptor chicks, as they spread their wings for the first time.The centre is largely the result of the work and vision of one woman, its principal owner Lynda Bridges. A former chicken farmer and pre-school assistant teacher, Lynda was appalled when she heard that the owl sanctuary on the site in 2003 was going to be “flattened and everything euthanized”. Only after innumerable council wrangles and thousands of pounds in legal fees was she able to open the new bird and reptile centre in February 2005, that is now thriving with 140 species of birds of prey and countless snakes, lizards, geckos, newts, terrapins and tortoises – 90 per cent of which, says Lynda, “arrived as a rescue – sometimes at the rate of two a month.“People buy them for their children and fail to do their research. When they get too big for the home, they just dump them – in the Forest, or even, as in one case, in a plastic bag on a rubbish dump, although the poor creatures were still alive.”When she says big, Lynda means like the 12ft Burmese python she now shelters, and a 10ft boa constrictor. Some of them, like the snake-eating king snake, can also threaten our indigenous species – the grass, adder and smooth snakes – when released into the wild.“We have tortoises here the size of paving slabs, and obviously these need huge vivariums. Most people find that eventually they just don’t have the room for them.”

Not so ‘cool’Although she does manage to re-home some of the snakes, most find better accommodation at Liberty’s where Lynda cares for them herself and gives demonstrations to the public, partly with the aim of educating them out of the idea that these creatures can make “cool pets”. “Reptiles don’t recognise you,” she says. “They just want to sleep and be fed.” Which is not at all like the birds of prey, who display lots of different dispositions and to whom the two falconers at the centre, John Picton, who is 24, and Lynda’s son Jayson, who has just turned 21, can become quite attached, particularly those they may have hand-reared themselves, like the baby owls.

A life’s passionJayson, who was one of the youngest falconers in the country when he started, obviously learned at his mother’s knee. For John, it was his father who introduced to him to what was to become his life’s passion at the tender age of four. Having since been to college (he has a National Diploma of Animal Management under his belt) he came to Liberty’s on work experience and never left. Now he lives on site, and can be found working all hours, particularly as the centre deals with emergency cases as a rescue for injured birds of prey. It also funds heir medical treatment and rehabilitation back into the wild.For John, even though he knows that there “will never be a Ferrari parked in his drive,” his work satisfaction more than compensates, “particularly on a beautiful summer’s morning. I feel really lucky in being able to do what I do – I never have the Monday morning blues.”

On displayOne of the highlights for him is demonstrating with the birds and seeing the awe and appreciation on the faces of the public. “It connects you to life and nature. You are seeing animals doing what they are meant to do in nature.” As well as being involved in the conservation of species, helping with national programmes to repopulate Britain with some of our dwindling species of red kites and long-eared owls, for instance, and breeding some of the world’s very rare species, like the African hornbill, the centre also performs a useful function for local farmers in keeping down the rabbit population. “The birds catch as many rabbits as they can,” explains John. “We use them for food at the centre. We don’t believe in wasting anything.” Although they have never lost any of their birds, John admits that they may have “misplaced one or two. Falcons sometimes like to give their wings a bit of a stretch. Most times they make their own way back, because birds of prey like routine as much as easy food – and they get both here. If they are juvenile, however, they might not be able to manage, so we can track them if we need to.”John has a lot more to say about birds of prey – indeed he admits that he ‘could speak for England’ on the subject – about the culture of vultures, for instance, or the different skills and ways in which different species behave, but perhaps the most enjoyable way of learning more is to go and see for yourself.

Try it yourselfFlying displays are held throughout the week and demonstrations of the reptiles at weekends and by arrangement for school and other groups. Flying Experience (10 and upwards) Hunting Day Flying Experience (16 and upwards) and Photographic Days are also available.The centre is open daily from March to October, 10am to 5pm (last admission 4pm) and there is a cafe and shop.

Pay a visitLiberty’s Owl, Reptile & Raptor CentreCrow Lane, Ringwood Sat nav postcode: BH24 3EATel. 01425 476487

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