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September 2008
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Hawk Conservancy Trust: A Grand Day Out

Peregrine Falcon

When the skies suddenly cleared and the sun burst forth in an unusually enthusiastic style this weekend, we knew it was too good to miss and headed out for the day on Sunday.

We had decided to visit the Hawk Conservancy Trust, located near Weyhill, just outside Andover. We hadn’t visited the Trust before, but had heard glowing reports from friends within the Sealed Knot.

Just before 1:30pm, we strolled through the visitor’s centre and into the main grounds, armed with a complimentary copy of the trust’s highly informative booklet and map. We immediately headed up to watch the “Valley of the Eagles Flying Display”.

Once settled on comfortable benches overlooking a wild flower meadow, we were all introduced to our commentator, Mr Ashley Smith (son of founders Reg and Hilary) who kicked off by explaining a little of the history of the trust; founded as the Weyhill Zoo by smallholders Reg and Hilary Smith in 1966, the trust evolved to specialise purely in birds of prey towards the end of the 1970′s.

American Bald Eagle

Since that time, the Trust’s facilities have been greatly expanded, as have their reputation and stature. They have also been acknowledged with a number of awards, including a silver award in their category in the “England for Excellence Awards” and a commendation from the Federation of Zoos of Great Britain and Ireland for their new hospital facility (both in spring 2002).

Ashley is an excellent presenter and the audience quickly warmed to anecdotes about his father’s earthy and frank approach to the occasional hapless visitor who, ignoring the “do not enter” signs, wandered into the field during a demonstration (thus disrupting the presentation). He then moved into the first of the demonstrations, with a Peregrine falcon, which swooped over the heads of the audience, between handlers stationed on both sides of the display area. Ashley explained that the flight of the Peregrine falcon reputedly inspired R.J. Mitchell in his designs for the Spitfire aircraft.

Next was an aerial display of a team of six vultures which Ashley explained were highly intelligent and social birds, who often got a bad press rep. This particular squad had learned that instead of flying just over the heads of the audience, they could fly right at their heads, knowing that the spectators would duck and we were all advised to do just that, in order to avoid getting a face full of surprised vulture. Needless to say, we took his advice! wink

Other spectacular participants in the display included Harris Hawks and Black kites and the display culminated with the arrival of a majestic pair of American Bald Eagles (accompanied by the musical score: Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis). After this first-rate display was complete, there were opportunities to talk to Ashley and the staff, take photos and get up close to the Bald Eagles.

Barn Owl (see the photos)

A quick snack followed in the well-equipped and spotlessly maintained picnic grounds opposite the entrance / coffee shop and then it was time to head off to the second display of the day; the woodland owls and hawks display.

Nestled under a canopy of native trees and flora, we were treated to a second excellent performance, featuring a Great Grey Owl, Little Owl, Barn and Tawny Owls among others. The handlers skillfully positioned themselves to allow the stars of the show to again fly low over the heads of the audience, criss-crossing the seated area so that everyone got an equal chance to see all the birds. As with the Valley of the Eagles display, visitors had the opportunity to take photos or ask questions after the performance. They could also hold a Tawny or Barn owl.

The staff were all friendly, enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. It is clear that they all have an equal commitment to education and conservation, as well as entertainment and we certainly left both displays better informed about these amazing creatures. I was interested to learn that the eyes of many owls are fixed within their sockets and they are unable to move their eyes in the way that many animals can. To compensate, they are able to rotate their heads through an axis of approximately 270 degrees.

Additionally, their large eyes and proportionally small heads generally means they have a small brain-mass to body-mass ratio (so much for the “wise old owl” stuff!).

The origins of the predominantly western idea that owls are wise apparently has it’s connection to the Greek temples of Athena: the Goddess of wisdom. Temples were of course not just places of worship, but were also centres of scholarly study and owls would sometimes roost in the temple eaves. The local people noticed this and concluded that the owl must be a wise bird. This was also immortalized in the name of the Owl genus: Athene. I am reliably informed that in other parts of the world, calling someone an “owl” is something of an insult, the inference being that the subject is not too bright!

We spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering around the different aviaries. One simple and interesting idea that the Hawk Conservancy Trust has hit upon, is a kind of collection scheme for kids; When kids arrive, they are given a booklet and as they walk around the aviaries, they can place a stamp in their booklet for each bird they see.

The Trust also operates a number of regular day events, including “a day with birds of prey“, “conservation days” and “photographic days“, to name but a few.

They also run a number of special events such as “Owls by Moonlight” on Friday and Saturday evenings during the spring and autumn months (I’m certainly going to be checking this out). They also do a number of corporate and special occasion events, ideally suited as birthday, anniversary or Christmas gifts for that hard-to-please recipient.

There’s a whole lot more information on their website, which I suggest you check out for yourself.

All in all, an excellent day out, thoroughly enjoyable and well worth the admission price. We are both keen to revisit soon.

See you there.

Check out our Photo Gallery of the Hawk Conservancy Trust

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One Comment for: Hawk Conservancy Trust: A Grand Day Out

  1. Visitor Comment # 1

    great photos.

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