With all the beautiful, exciting tourist attractions the UK has to offer, sometimes a day trip outside of the hustle and bustle can be just the thing to make your travel experience complete. But how does one go about finding things to do in small villages or the English countryside, especially when family and budget are a consideration? For animal and nature lovers, may I suggest the Feathers and Fur Falconry Centre.
Situated about 45 minutes by train outside of London in Ladd’s Garden Village, Reading, Berkshire, the Feathers and Fur Falconry Centre offers all sorts of opportunities to experience amazing birds firsthand.
An expert falconer will accompany you throughout your activity. I secured an appointment for a family falconry session online with Falconer Sadie Shepherd. This included a 1-hour appointment for myself and three children, and allows up to 6 people to participate without age restrictions, and offers availability 7 days a week. Educated in Countryside Studies and Rural Resource Management, Sadie set up Feathers and Fur in 2009, after having extensive experience in falcon breeding and volunteer work in the US, Iceland and Africa. In her own words, Sadie’s goal is to:
“…introduce people to the birds that we so often glimpse at on the side of the motorway or admire as they circle and soar above us, teaching us how they fit into the environment and how we can help protect them”.
In both North America and the UK, the captive breeding of birds of prey is now both widespread and successful. It began as a way to curb the declining bird populations being detrimentally affected by habitat loss, undesirable predators and the ongoing use of chemicals such as DDT and PCBs. By the 1970’s, populations had become increasingly limited, with the peregrine falcon being particularly affected. Around this time, UK falconer Phillip Glasier of the Falconry Centre in Glocestershire obtained more than 20 species of captive raptors. This spawned cooperative efforts between falconers, governments and non-governmental agencies to supplement wild raptor populations in peril. In North America, the movement was especially strong due to private donations and funding allocations bestowed through the 1972 Endangered Species Act, which enabled falconers who had bred birds in captivity such as peregrines, golden eagles, bald eagles and aplomado falcons, to release them back into the wild.
Our visit began with Bert, a beautiful barn owl. Pale in colour with dark eyes, the barn owl is one of the most widespread species of owl. While it is nocturnal in North America, in Britain it also hunts by day. Because they are small eyed, they hunt primarily by sound, locating small rodents with their acute hearing. With gloved hands, Sadie provided us with male chicks she buys from local farmers to feed her birds (no, they were not alive!). Bert flew from hand to hand across the field when we called him to eat. His flight was amazing and his wingspan impressive at about 50 inches (127 cm), though his actual body was only a foot tall and weighed about 1.5 lbs. We were told that in the rainy weather so prevalent in the UK, it is imperative for barn owls to stay as dry as possible or their feathers are stripped of oils, impairing their flight and chilling them terribly.
Next came Ash, a Tawny owl who perched quietly on my 12 year old’s hand as he walked the field. As the most common owl in Britain, the Tawny owl is a popular fixture in British literature, known for its signature “tu-whit tu-whoo” call at night. Tinier than the barn owl, Ash was very light to hold at only ¾ of a pound. The wingspan of this little guy is about 40” (100 cm), and with soft, rounded wings, his flight was nearly silent. The Tawny owl pair-bonds for life in most cases. They nest in tree holes or abandoned crow’s nests and hunt mice, small birds and fish. Like Bert, Ash uses hearing, which is roughly 10x more accurate than human ears, to hunt- as his eyesight is quite average for the owl world. In addition, the Tawny owl uses 10 different vocal calls.
Echo was a Harris Hawk. Known for their sociability and group hunting, these medium-large hawks are intelligent and quite trainable, making them a regular fixture in falconry. They are not only popular in Britain but also Central and South America as well as the Southwestern US. They range in height from 18-23” (46-59 cm), and have a wingspan of similar width to their stature. They possess a harsh, shrill call. Echo had beautiful red wings and when we spread out in the field and called him, he came directly to us with ease and precision. The diet of the Harris hawk consists of birds, small mammals insects and lizards. The female is the dominant bird in the group.
Saving the best for last, we were introduced to Charlie, the enormous Indian Eagle Owl. These fantastic large-horned owls have a booming call at dawn and dusk and in the wild, reside in forested areas in pairs with their mates. What an experience to hold this bird so close and stroke it’s beautiful feathers! Knowing we would likely never be this close again, we couldn’t resist! Indian Eagle Owls have a sizeable geographic scope, including Pakistan, Nepal and India. They stand 19-22” (48-55 cm) in height and weigh between 3-5 lbs. Sadie let us feel through the feathers to those little bodies underneath to get a sense of how big the plumage really makes them look. These owls are full size by 10 weeks old and their vocalization is low, clear and ringing. Diet consists of meaty things, such as mice, rats (making them very beneficial to farmers) and even crabs.
Sadie warned us that with springtime upon us, love was in the air for the birds, leaving them highly distracted, but we never noticed and found the experience incredibly rewarding. We did not know beforehand which birds we would spend our hour with, but we were really pleased. We were permitted to take pictures, even selfies with some of the birds, with a few pointers from Sadie. There are other animals at the centre if you happen to be going with young children: ferrets, guinea pigs, giant rabbits and dogs live amongst the birds in addition to the other birds in the outdoor aviary. In contrast to most tourist attractions, The Feathers and Fur Falconry Centre offers a unforgettable experience that is sure to please animal lovers of any age.
Falconer Phillip Glassier
For a list of UK falconry Centres consult:
Train bookings are available at: www.thetrainline.com. You must travel from Paddington Station to Twyford.
Ticket cost: £15 per person return, with the purchase of 3 online, the 4th was free.
I hour Family Falconry Session: £60
At Twyford train station, cabs routinely wait out front. The cost to Ladd’s Garden Village was £10 and the driver agreed to pick us up again when we had finished.
Lorelei Bachman is Canadian freelance writer/composer who is also a mother, an avid traveler and lover of all things British. She travels to Europe often, and loves sharing her food and travel experiences with friends and family.