Learning how to fly birds of prey is not your usual spare time activity of choice – not because it doesn’t sound amazing but because you probably didn’t know it was a possibility. But it’s a growing trend; apparently 30,000 people in this country have birds of prey, as pets, as a hobby or as a business. However if you or a loved one just fancy having a go, then there’s no better place to learn than Leeds Castle with one of their half day, full day or week long courses.
Leeds Castle is the perfect setting in which to do private falconry lessons. They already do a captivating birds of prey display each day in the grounds for visitors to the castle so the birds are already well established as castle residents. They have a range of owls, Harris hawks, eagles and falcons, even a laughing Kookaburra which is a delight to listen to once you’ve been reassured that it isn’t laughing at your mint green trousers…
Mark and Hannah who run the display centre have over 25 years experience with birds of prey. Dressed in traditional costume they introduced us to all the birds, lovingly explaining each of their individual quirks and characteristics as well teaching you avian facts like how eye colour indicates their hunting patterns. Black/dark brown eyes they would hunt at night in the wild, yellow hunt by day and orange eyes mean they are crepuscular hunters; at dawn or dusk.
Each bird has a gorgeously adorable character and although you might not like to see caged birds, they have a pretty cushty life of top veterinary care, a nutritious diet and if they did want to fly away during the displays, well they could, but they choose not to. Once the oohs and ahhs of the intros had been done Hannah took Mozart the owl out for a spin. Hannah hand reared Mozart from the age of 3 days so he thinks of her as his human mummy and you sense that they do have a bond. He listens to her call, takes off and flies for her, pretty much when she asks (but seemingly only if she has food on her glove). With time he starts to recognise us too and flies to and from us like we’ve been doing this together for years. Once Mozart gets tired it’s time to take Texas the Harris hawk out into the woods where he hides in the trees and then swoops down onto your arm to retrieve his food before flying off again and repeating the ‘game’. There’s something wild, primitive and yet traditional about a stunning hunter soaring through the air then coming to land gracefully on your arm. It’s beautiful. Their eyes (and sharp pecky beaks mind) are only centimetres away from your face. It’s an intimate yet vulnerable moment, perhaps for both parties. As they savagely tear into their reward (parts of a baby chick) you’re reminded that they’re birds of prey, not budgerigars. However, casually strolling through the ancient forest, with Leeds Castle perched within the moat on one side and vineyards and rolling countryside on the other whilst carrying a majestic bird of prey is a memory I will treasure for a very long time.
After a few hours flying the birds you can quench your thirst and enjoy a tasty snack or meal in the newly revamped Great British Kitchen restaurant. Hearty British staples using local produce make for some exceptionally tasty grub in the 17th century oak beamed restaurant overlooking the stunning 900 year old moated castle. Shame you have to leave at all. Well, actually you don’t!
After a successful launch last year, the Leeds Castle Knight’s Glamping is back. Eight splendid striped pavilion tents based on a medieval design are set within the castle vineyard. After 9 nights in a tent up Kilimanjaro recently I wasn’t that keen on reliving the camping experience…but once I took a look inside our ‘Devonshire’ tent I was wooed by the romance and decadence of it all. A four poster bed, quality cotton bedding, carpeted floor, a log burning stove, tea and coffee making facilities – not to mention dressing gowns, dressing table and fairy lights strung from the ceiling creating a delightfully magical ambience.
We had our own little veranda and picnic table too, plus a communal BBQ area if you wished to cook your own feast. A cottage next to the tents provides a lounge area with television, fridge and kitchen equipment, plus the best camping shower and toilet facilities I have ever seen. Laura and Lauren who run the experience live on site and are always on hand to refill your wood supply, fetch more bottled water, or even bring you a hot water bottle to warm your tootsies. Not exactly roughing it then.
Leeds Castle has so much to offer you can’t possibly do it all in one visit. Next time I’ll be doing the punting on the moat, getting lost in the maze, (warning, don’t go in there if you are on a tight schedule!) doing a Segway tour and of course marvelling at the quirky dog collar museum – the only one of its kind in the world I believe.
Falconry lessons make an original and exciting gift. A half day experience is £75 per person, £30 per spectator. Click here for more info or to book, and remember to say Kaddy recommended you try it!
Leeds Castle also do huge monthly events and festivals so keep an eye on the website for more information. In August, 23rd-31st, their first Medieval Festival takes place – a week long medieval spectacular!