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Flying high in St Ives
By Henry Giles
 
Just up the road from central St Ives in Cambridgeshire is one of England's foremost raptor centres. Founded in the late 1980s it was originally called Ramsey Raptor Rescue which itself started up when a local family were asked to look after a Tawny owl called Boris, charity status soon followed and the rest, as they say is history.

Today the Raptor Foundation has grown into an impressive area of visitor centre and cages for the birds, many of which are owls. Among them are film stars - several starred in the Harry Potter movies - and the stories of rescue (sadly one arrived stuffed into a tube on a plane from South America) and recuperation are fascinating and alarming, showing as they do the extent of black market trade in birds of prey worldwide..

Because the centre does not just provide a home for unwanted, mistreated and abandoned birds of prey - it also provides medical care for injured birds, returns rehabilitated birds to the wild and helps with environmental problems and the science of conservation in the Fens and wider areas. 
  And it's all about the birds - these range from large, eagle-sized owls such as the European eagle owl to small sparrow hawks.
And you learn some really interesting stuff. The 'eared' owls use their feathery appendages to break up their outline for camouflage. Owls cannot turn their heads 180 degrees (although it looks like they can!) and the talons of an eagle owl can easily break through clothing and even a leather glove.

That last one was good to be aware of as I was personally invited to Meet the Birds - an option for any visitor although there is an extra charge for this experience. It was exciting however to enter the cages at the rear and stand quietly as the lady caught a bird for me and I wore the leather falconer's gloves to hold it. The birds I held, about five, ranged from the big eagle owls weighing up to 5lb down to the little 12oz Tawny owl I held at the end. Named Topaz, he (or she the sex was indeterminate apparently!) was a lovely mottled brown colour to blend in with the English hedgerows. Quite a little character at only 3 years old and a big favourite with everyone. Sadly there was not the staff so that our youngsters, Pippa and her cousins Hazel and Olivia who live just down the road in St Ives, could also hold birds but they loved some of the other animals on site including Meerkats and snakes (although we were not able to access their building on our visit). The snakes were a minor disappointment for Pippa who had actually visited the centre on a school trip in her reception year, but she tells me they 'slither up the cages and we saw one changing its skin' as she watched with her classmates. Which would appeal to some but not so much to others I guess!

Elsewhere children's facilities are good and from the photographs on the brochure children as young as four or five can Meet the Birds. And the playground has two little bikes to play on, a playhouse to play in and another playhouse 'up high where you climb the steps to get up', a square platform to stand on and an owl picture to put your face through and take a photograph. Finally something to climb up and hone your climbing skills. Finally (Pippa tells me) there are swings - a baby swing and a normal swing. In the background is a board with three different sized birds' wing spans so children can measure up to them to see if they are bigger and smaller than the birds.
 
To make an extra event of your visit you mightl like to stay at the Falconer's Nest which is on site and as well as appearing on BBC2's B&B The Best has 3 VisitBritain tourist stars. With seven terrace cottages sleeping up to four it offers pretty extensive accommodation.

Experience Day gift vouchers are available priced £40 for Meet the Birds and Hawk Walk. With £80 days including Hunting Day and Falconry Experience Day which have a more involved format and tuition hence the increased price.
There is flying of birds three times a day starting at noon and the centre itself opens at 10am, closing 5pm summer and 4pm in winter.

For further information visit the website.
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