“ Holdenby Hall / Northamptonshire / Tel: 01604 770476 „
My sister and I have just spent a wet and windy half day in the company of Mike, Ray and their birds and had an absolutely brilliant time!!
Mike gave us an initial brief on the birds and the centre and even offered us the option to defer our event as the weather was so bad but we chose to carry on as planned and despite getting soaked, as of course the birds did, could not fault the experience.
Ray then took over and introduced us to Tom, the burrowing owl, who is a real hoot (sorry!!) in his aviary who happily flew to our hand giving us the initial confidence to handle the birds.
From the little fella we went in with, flew to glove and fed Bob the vulture, the most gentle and handsome of birds (really).
We then went into the fields with Cirrus the harris hawk who flew from trees to glove despite the gale force wind and driving rain, on to Spot the owl in the "arches field" then Rosco the bengal owl in his avairy then ............................ out onto the front lawn to be mugged by the acrobatic black kite Spike who Ray was delighted to let take food in flight off the backs of our hands and even our head, awesome!!
Back to the avairy to meet the European Eagle Owl, and finally back out into the fields with Casper the outrageously beautiful barn owl who's party trick is to fly straight back to his aviary!!! Not today though, Casper decided to stay and flew from glove to glove quite happily and demonstrated the original version of stealth flight passing between us without a sound.
All too soon the experience was over ........ could have stayed and got in Ray's way for many more hours!!
For many years I had one thing that sat at the top of my 'really really want to do' list with clear water between itself and everything else. That thing was a balloon ride. Previously I'd had bungee jumping, diving and helicopters at the top of the list but had one by one knocked all of those off. I dropped subtle hints about the balloons and when they failed, not such subtle ones. Eventually I got my balloon ride over the valleys of Cappadocia in Turkey and was left with a great big gap in my life there was nothing else that I still really wanted to do. To be honest, I was a bit lost and I needed something else to yearn for. What's the point of thinking 'if only I could win the lottery' if you don't have a long list of things that you'd go out and do?
And then in May this year I went to a conference in Bruges and went to a big medieval-themed gala dinner at the Belfry. As a Harris Hawk flew past my ear the gap in my life instantly got a new filler I knew I wanted to fly birds of prey.
I asked the guy who was flying the bird if it was a Harris Hawk and he was so surprised that I think he got the idea I knew a thing or two about birds (truth be told, I have a photo of my husband with a Harris on a falconry course so it's one of the few I recognise). The guy told me to stay put, gave me a big leather glove and told me he'd be back with something very special. Yes, I realise that sounds a bit sleazy but I was pretty excited. I thought I'd get to hold the hawk and I was really buzzing. Imagine my amazement when he returned a couple of minutes with an absolutely enormous golden eagle and handed her over with the instruction "I need you to smile and laugh a lot so that other people will realise she's not scary".
Well that was one exceptionally unnecessary request. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat so happy that I hardly cared that I was holding 11 pounds of bird (the avian equivalent of a jumbo jet) on the end of my arm. Sure enough the cameras came out and within a few minutes everyone wanted a go. I'd served my purpose as the 'opening act' but there was more to come. I got first 'go' with a male European Eagle Owl again, an absolutely beautiful bird. He's the one in my profile photo.
I returned home and told my husband that we had to find a place where we could fly birds as soon as possible. He'd done it before but I'd never had the chance. We both had a week booked off work at the end of June and our big treat for the week would revolve around finding somewhere to go flying. I googled like a demon and found a local stately home that had a birds of prey centre. The centre was called Icarus Falconry and was based at Holdenby House, just a few miles from home or more relevantly to the rest of you just a few miles out of Northampton.
Icarus offers a variety of 'experiences' from a half day with the hawks and owls for £60 per person, to a full day falconry experience for £95 per person and advanced courses of up to 5 days designed more for people who want to keep their own birds. After a number of emails and messages left on each others mobile phones we managed to track down the owner of Icarus and provisionally booked ourselves two places on a full day experience. I'll admit I had been torn because I was worried that a falconry experience might mean that we missed out on the owls but I also knew that half a day wouldn't be enough.
We dropped round to Holdenby House to pay our deposits about a week before were due to go flying. It's worth knowing that Icarus don't take credit cards so be sure to have cash or pay in advance by cheque. Going over beforehand meant we had a chance to see the conditions the birds were kept in and to talk a little bit about what we wanted to do. In my case this was 'play with as many birds as possible for as long as possible .PLEASE'. We then headed home and for the next week it rained non-stop, we took soggy day trips out and about and we watched the forecasts with fear and trepidation. I was absolutely desperate to not have to postpone the falconry day.
Against all odds, the day dawned bright and dry. We packed our lunches in a cooler bag, dressed in lots of layers of drab 'country' colours to avoid scaring the birds and to ensure we could adapt if the weather changed. We made sure the camera was fully charged with a spare battery on standby and we set off.
When we booked we knew that we were the only clients with bookings for that day but with the rain we also knew that there might be others who'd had to cancel and rearrange their days. However, we were lucky and nobody else was there so the birds were all ours for the day. This might sound a bit antisocial but I knew that I was going to want every minute I could get with the birds and I was going to have serious 'sharing issues' if there had been too many people.
When we arrived, the first thing we saw was a young Lanner Falcon, still with his baby feathers, squawking away at the top of his little lungs. He was booked to go and visit a nursery school with Mike, the owner of Icarus. He was taking the little fella and an owl to show the children and tell them about the importance of these birds and their place in the eco-system. Mike took our money and got us to fill in lots of paperwork whilst his assistant (apologies if they ever read this, but I can't recall his name so I'm going to call him Jim) brought us coffee and biscuits. The only other person around was a teenager who just loved being with the birds and would happily sit for hours, feeding them on the glove and chatting away to them to help them socialise. We took a wander around the falconry to look at the birds waiting patiently in their aviaries or on their outdoor perches.
Someone undoubtedly will ask me if I think it's cruel to keep birds caged or tethered and I have struggled with this one myself. However, when the birds are flown they always have the option not to come back so life can't be too hard, can it? Given the choice between being protected, well cared for, exercised and most importantly well fed, would you fly off and not come back? Would you consider it cruel to keep a cat or a dog, feed it well, exercise it regularly (OK, the cat analogy breaks down at that point) and look after its welfare? My guess is that most people would say it's not cruel. There are bad falconries and we were told that the people who ran the Holdenby House falconry before Icarus had a lot of very badly treated and distressed birds but the birds now at Icarus are in fantastic condition and very well cared for.
We spent most of the day with Jim, hanging out with the birds, weighing them, feeding them, exercising them, taking them for walks and having a fantastic time. We kicked off with a little Burrowing Owl. Like me you might be thinking 'owls don't burrow, owls fly and live in trees and barns'. Well this little fella lives in a burrow and he's a great little 'beginner's owl' because he has such tiny feet and little claws that he can sit on your hand without hurting you. Icarus use him to get the more nervous clients eased into handling the birds. Hubby and I stood at opposite ends of his enclosure and he hopped from hand to hand in search of bits of dead chick. Once he'd had enough food he took everything else he wanted and ran into his burrow to store the extra food for later. Very cute and very funny.
Ah yes, the dead critter problem ..
As a fishitarian who hasn't eaten meat in about 17 years, I am squeamish about dead animals. Actually I'm pretty squeamish about meat too even if it hasn't got a face or a tail on it. I was quite worried before I went about how I'd cope with dishing out dead chicks and mice and spending the day with a bunch of lean, mean, flying and killing machines. However, whilst the dead animals weren't something I enjoyed, I soon got over the revulsion of having bits of dead chick in my hand but the urge to keep wiping my hands on my trousers was very strong.
With the burrowing owl fed and plenty of extra food hidden away for later we moved on to the first of the birds to fly. I really should have written this review sooner after the flying day whilst I could still remember the names of more of the birds so forgive me for that lapse. We collected our first big owl a brown fluffy fella who may well have been one of the smaller eagle owls. First we took him into the office to be weighed just like an obedient Weight Watcher he hopped onto the perch on the scales. Jim noted down the weight on the bird's chart and worked out how many dead chicks he should prepare. We took the owl off through the formal gardens of the house and into a field surrounded by trees. I was so excited by this point as I carried the owl on my glove, holding onto the leather straps. I handed him back to Jim, walked off ten meters or so with my lump of dead chick and called him. He took no notice at all. I called him again and the little blighter shot off to the other side of the field where he promptly dispatched a young rabbit to meet its maker. Hubby and I were impressed Jim wasn't. They hate the owls to catch their own food because they need them to 'need' the food supply. An independent owl is apparently not an obedient owl.
The owl mantled his wings over the rabbit and a bit of negotiation went on "I'll swap you this chick that you KNOW you'll like for that nasty little bunny". He got his chick, Jim got the rabbit and we spent another 15 minutes or so flying the owl back and forth up and down the field. This was the owl's first ever independent kill to say he was proud of himself would be an understatement. For the rest of the day, each time we passed his enclosure he was hopping from foot to foot in an excited little "look at me first blood killer owl" dance.
During the day we flew roughly half a dozen different owls including the enormous European Eagle Owl and a Barn Owl as well as another half dozen hawks and falcons. A couple of the birds, such as the vulture, were only fed in their cages but for the others, we flew them to and from the glove, we watched them flown to a lure spun around by the handler at great speed, we threw food into the air for them to catch on the wing and we had them take food directly off the backs of our hands as the birds flew past. We walked all over the gorgeous Holdenby Hall estate, through forests and fields. It was an amazing and beautiful way to spend a day. We learned about the use of tracking devices and the hoods the raptors wear. Also about how Icarus use them both for hunting days and for bird clearance over land fill sites and about how some birds are bred to see their handlers as surrogate parents, whilst other breeds are better performers if they don't get attatched.
Perhaps the nicest thing was that we were just fitted into the normal every day programme of what the falconry does with the birds. There was no 'special' performance we just joined in with a regular day with the birds. And finally at the end of the day as a 'special treat' we got to hold Mike's favourite bird, the Black Eagle.
Would I recommend a day at Icarus? Do you really need to ask? Of course I would. I had previously spent a lot more money to send my husband on a one day course at a birds of prey centre in Suffolk. He'd been in a group of 8-10 customers and had a lot less time with the birds. He'd also not been able to spend time weighing the birds, preparing the food and getting to know about each of the individual birds. So yes, I'd say that Icarus does a great one-day birds of prey experience that you'll remember long after (like me) you've forgotten the names of the different birds.