Wings and preyers at Stonham Barns

If you're looking for a day out with a difference, where it doesn't matter if the sun shines or not, visit the magnificent birds of prey who reside at Stonham Barns, says Mark Tripp

If you’re looking for a day out with a difference, where it doesn’t matter if the sun shines or not, visit the magnificent birds of prey who reside at Stonham Barns, says Mark Tripp

The British weather being what it is, planning an excursion, even at the height of summer, can be a tricky business. So, for those of us who often start the Friday evening conversation with “well where shall we go tomorrow then?” having a reserve of places to visit on the days when the sun isn’t shining can be useful. One such place, which lies right in the heart of Suffolk, can fulfil the needs of individuals, couples and families alike when it comes to a rewarding day out and is a particular favourite with bird lovers. I’m talking, of course, about the Owl Sanctuary at Stonham Barns.The Stonham Barns complex is signposted from the A14 and is situated along the A1120 Pettaugh Road, just outside the quiet village of Stonham Aspal. It is an extensive site with a number of interesting and eyecatching premises within its fenced grounds including an events arena, a 9-hole golf course, a garden centre, an aquatic centre, a restaurant  – for light refreshments or a full-on lunch – and around the large car parking area a number of gift, craft and speciality shops that may also take your interest.The Owl Sanctuary, formerly known as The Bird of Prey Centre, lies at the far end of the main car park as you enter the Stonham Barns grounds. It first opened its doors in 1995 to promote the conservation of British owls and other birds of prey and has done much good work in the field since then.Visitors enter the sanctuary through The Owl Barn Shop with its eyecatching displays of owl, bird of prey and other conservation related products. If you’re an owl enthusiast like me, you will have a lovely time browsing the shelves and displays for gifts and mementoes.And if you have any questions, you can always ask the very friendly and extremely helpful people manning the reception desk.On a visit to the sanctuary, one thing you immediately notice is that there is no compulsory entrance fee. This is a bit of an oddity in these days, but even though entry is ‘free’ it is worth noting that the sanctuary is a charity and relies entirely on donations from the visiting public and fundraising events.‘Recommended’ fees are on display at the desk and are based upon charges found at similar facilities and I would suggest that a recommended minimum contribution is the very least that most visitors would want to hand over.

The flight displays are both entertaining and informative offering plenty of detail and stories about each of the different birds

Exiting the shop and heading outside you pass through a small corridor of hedgerow which opens out on to the pathways that lead round the covered perches. On display here are a number of magnificent birds; the European eagle owl, peregrine falcon, common buzzard, Harris hawk, Russian Steppe eagle, to name but a few, all at close range to the visitor and without cage wire to interrupt your view. To the far right there is a children’s play area, which also doubles as a close encounter area, where children have the chance to hold young owls and learn more from the handlers about bird behaviour and habits.Walking further round you come to the caged aviaries. Here you will find snowy owls, little owls, and even a vulture. The vulture is an extremely interesting character to watch. Even though it is black in colour, you can see clearly its feather formation and the shade differences between the top and bottom feathers when it spreads out it wings. At the show arena, narrated bird displays take place throughout the day, giving visitors the chance to see these amazing creatures in their full splendour. It’s just beautiful to see the graceful and silent flight of the barn owl swooping between one perch and another across the arena and sometimes over your head and to watch with awe the powerful and extremely high rise of the peregrine falcon before it dives with immense speed and power to the lure controlled by the handler. The flight displays are both entertaining and informative offering plenty of detail and stories about each of the different birds.Visitors are welcome to take pictures and for those with a keen interest in photography, there are photographic event days which can be booked either through the website or at the sanctuary. The centre and those who work there have successfully rescued and rehabilitated many birds of prey before releasing them back into the wild. Those birds which cannot be released often remain at the sanctuary and enjoy excellent care and living conditions. The work of the sanctuary doesn’t stop there however. As well as offering a haven for birds of prey, the centre is keen to spread the word on the conservation of owls and other raptors, and offers talks at a variety of venues throughout the year. They also provide teachers with a free down-loadable “SOS Teachers pack” which provides information about the owls and other birds of prey, plus key-stage and curriculum related activities. For more information on this and other fascinating things, see their website at  For those with a keen interest and who wish to take it a step further, the centre runs falconry workshops. Here participants can enjoy tuition on the fascinating hobby of falconry including how to choose a bird, how to keep the bird, flying, lures, and much more. Again, more information on this can be obtained either on their website or at the centre.  All in all, Stonham Barns Owl Sanctuary provides a great day out for the individual, enthusiast, couples or family alike, even for those who just wish to fill some spare time with something interesting and a little less ordinary.