BIRDS OF A FEATHER: THE FALCONRY EXPERIENCE AT LEEDS CASTLE
Any trip to Leeds Castle is going to be a good one – it is, after all, the ‘loveliest castle in the world’, and with almost 900 years of history within its magnificent walls, as well as 500 acres of parkland, a maze and grotto, two children’s play areas, a lake, a golf course, a restaurant and plenty of different activities going on throughout the year, each trip can be unique – but when it involves having the opportunity to get up close and personal with birds of prey, it’s going to be a very good one indeed.
After a warming coffee and an introduction from Mark (head falconer) and Reece (assistant falconer) who were going to be our guides for the day, our group was taken to the falconry centre. Birds in their aviaries, birds out on the weathering ground, birds just about everywhere, and each one different. Each one has its own personality, its own name. From the Indian Rock Owl to the Harris Hawk, from Kookaburras to Kestrels, Mark and Reece were passionate and excited to teach us about each one, giving us background information and telling us their names, ages, where they had originally come from, or whether they had been bred at the castle itself.
With each member of the group suitably attired with a leather glove for their left hand, it was time to begin. On the other side of the famous Leeds Castle maze is an area dedicated to the birds of prey displays (if you’ve visited, you’ve probably seen it), and it was there that we were able to get our first taste of falconry.
With Mark and Reece ably on hand to assist, it was Owlfie, the African Spotted Eagle Owl, who took centre stage. Taking it in turns, we stood, left arm out, a little nervous about what might happen next. But there was nothing to worry about – Owlfie, like the good owl he is, rose into the air, soared towards the outstretched (gloved) hand, and landed lightly. Surprisingly lightly, in fact. He’s not a tiny bird, and I had assumed he would be heavier.
“You can stroke him,” said Mark. Um, really? With that beak? With my un-gloved hand? Mark assured me the beak was nothing to worry about, and Owlfie seems pretty chilled out, so I had a go, and I’m glad I did. Just as we were beginning to get to know one another, it was time for him to go, but the next bird for us to learn about was just as stunning: Austin, the Harris Hawk.
For this bird’s flight we took a wander away from the falconry area and into the wood, across the golf course, taking in the view of the castle as we went. It was the perfect way to make the most of the grounds whilst also letting Austin really show off his stuff. In the midst of his flying, he spotted something on the ground and he went for it. It was an impressive sight, and it must have put Austin in a good mood – he quite happily came down to greet each one of us a number of times.
Finally, we returned to the birds of prey area for our final two birds, Gomez and Morticia, the Kookaburras (Gomez is a Blue Winged Kookaburra and Morticia is a Laughing Kookaburra). These two played, showed off, and otherwise thoroughly seemed to enjoy their time outside with us, and we all certainly enjoyed our time with them.
A day of falconry at Leeds Castle is something that, once experienced, will be hard to forget. And if you’re stuck for a unique gift idea for Christmas, this just may be the perfect thing.
Leeds Castle Birds of Prey Centre