A day at the National Falconry School in Ashover

Arthur landing

Arthur landing - Credit: Archant

Nik Cook spends a day with James McKay at the National Falconry School near Ashover

Lizzie in flight

Lizzie in flight - Credit: Archant

I’ve always been fascinated by raptors, birds of prey and owls, and, at country shows, usually have to be physically dragged away by my wife from a falconry display or stand. So when I discovered that the National Falconry School was located just outside the village of Ashover and that you could do taster days, I immediately signed up.

Arriving on a typically overcast and drizzly Peak District morning, I was met at Honeybank by James McKay. If I considered myself to be animal mad, James takes the condition to a whole different level. He is a zoologist, former CEO of the UK’s National Federation of Zoos and scientific fellow of the Zoological Society of London. Along with the National Falconry School, Honeybank is also home to the National Ferret School and its 100 plus ferrets. There are also snakes, spiders, other creepy crawlies and a pack of springer spaniels. Along with countless television appearances, James travels with his menagerie to shows and schools across the country to give falconry displays, animal encounters and to educate the public about conservation and animal welfare.

Over coffee, James gave myself and fellow raptor enthusiast Andy, a fascinating potted history of falconry and hawking. It was first mentioned in AD 244 in China, came to the West in AD 500 in Greece and to England in Saxon times in AD 733. It features in the Bayeux tapestry, which shows King Harold carrying a hawk, and Henry VIII was saved from drowning after he fell in a dyke by his Royal Falconer. We also learned how in the Middle Ages your social class supposedly determined which bird you could fly, and about the many expressions we use in daily conversation that have their roots in falconry. With the advent of affordable and accurate guns and the enclosure of land, however, falconry went into decline. It almost died out but, thanks to the work of James and fellow enthusiasts, there are now over 25,000 falconers in Britain.

We then headed out for a tour of the aviaries. James explained how he effectively has a summer and winter team of birds for displays as, while the birds are moulting, which is a four to five month process, they are unable to fly. Entering the aviary where his summer team was housed, the birds’ excitement at seeing James was obvious. Lizzie, a gigantic Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, was especially pleased to see him, screeching for his attention and taking great delight in having the area just above her beak tickled. Sharing the aviary with Lizzie were birds of all shapes and sizes. These included diminutive Little Owls, Percy the Barn Owl, Bess, a majestic looking Gyr Saker, Trevor the Spectacled Owl and a gang of Harris’s Hawks. Finally, sitting on his perch and looking like a wood carving, was Twiggy. Probably one of the strangest birds I’ve ever seen, an Australian Frogmouth, he’s a large version of our Nightjar and an evolutionary step back from the more specialised owls.

Lizzie perches patiently

Lizzie perches patiently - Credit: Archant

After lunch, with the weather starting to brighten up, it was time to fly some of the birds. First James showed us the Falconer’s knot, which, as your left hand is encased in a leather gauntlet and carries the bird, can be tied and untied with your right hand alone. The first bird out of the aviary was Percy the Barn Owl. Before flying, James weighed Percy. To fly, a bird has to be hungry and closely monitoring their weight is essential. James explained that, despite their reputation for being wise, owls aren’t the brightest of birds. On an educational scale, he likened them to kindergarten pupils. He’s trained owls for film and television work, including the Harry Potter films, but said it was always a challenge and they definitely weren’t for beginners. That said, Percy performed well and having such an engaging and beautiful bird fly to your hand was a truly magical experience. Most amazing was his totally silent flight which James showed us was due to the comb-like leading edges of his wings. This breaks up the airflow and prevents the gushing sound of turbulence over the wing.

Next out, and still screeching, was Lilly the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. I love owls and flying Lizzie was a genuine thrill. A huge bird, it was completely different to flying the diminutive Percy. As she flew in, her massive wings clipped the back of your head, you really felt her near 2kg weight and her vast powerful talons crushed your hand despite the hefty gauntlet. She did, however, live up to her owls-not-being-the-brightest billing, spending a fair bit of time perched stubbornly on a post bobbing her head up and down. It then started to rain and, without any waterproofing, this put an end to Lizzie’s antics.

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Taking a break while the rain shower moved through, James told us how he’d got into falconry as a young boy. He’d begged his parents to be allowed a bird and finally they relented and, having obtained the necessary legal permission, he raised and trained a kestrel. At that time kestrels were common and recommended for beginners, but because of their small size they are actually notoriously hard to keep. Now they are in decline in the UK, taking birds from the wild is prohibited and kestrels are no longer seen as beginner’s birds. Birds are now captive bred and there are more robust and suitable types available.

Another key role at Honeybank is the rehabilitation of injured raptors brought in by members of the public and the RSPCA. James said that there is an almost constant stream of crates and cardboard boxes and as if to confirm this, as we walked back to the aviary a kestrel chick that had been found had arrived. It would be assessed by a vet and if not too severely injured, nursed back to full health at Honeybank before being released.

Nik with his favourite, Lizzie

Nik with his favourite, Lizzie - Credit: Archant

Our final bird of the day to fly was Arthur the Harris’s Hawk. James said that if owls are at kindergarten level then these natives of the Arizona desert are professors. The only bird species to hunt cooperatively in packs, due to their versatility these beautiful birds have become incredibly popular with falconers. Flying Arthur was a completely different experience to the owls. His responses were instantaneous and he almost seemed to be predicting the handler’s actions. The Harris’s Hawk is skilled at hunting in woodland and James demonstrated how Arthur could negotiate seemingly impossible gaps, flying through a plastic hoop of no more than 10 inches diameter. As a final party piece, Arthur flew back into his transport crate before joining his fellow stars back in the aviary.

With Arthur safely back on his perch, it started to rain again and an amazing day came to an end. Flying the birds had exceeded all my expectations. They’d all been so different but, despite Percy the Barn Owl’s beguiling stealth and Arthur’s intelligence, my heart belonged to the belligerent but magnificent Lizzie. As much as flying the birds though, what really made the day was James’s enthusiasm, knowledge and obvious love for his charges. I’ll definitely be returning to Honeybank, with a two-day owl course top of my to-do list.

Percy in flight

Percy in flight - Credit: Archant

James with the Frogmouth Owl at Chatsworth Country Fair

James with the Frogmouth Owl at Chatsworth Country Fair - Credit: Archant