24 March 2000

A GREAT WAY TO USE A WOOD

A chance

encounter with

a local falconer led to

an unusual diversification for

one Rutland farming family.

David Cousins reports

THERES no doubt about it; woods are marvellous things. They look nice, house all manner of small furry animals and get on with the business of growing in an efficient and fuss-free way. But if youve got a large wood on the farm it can sometimes seem a bit of a wasted asset – you feel you should be doing something wonderful with it but youre not sure what.

That certainly was the feeling of Marcus Thurlby and his wife Annie. The 240ha (600-acre) arable farm they bought with Marcuss father John at Burley near Oakham in 1995 came with a 16ha (40-acre) block of woodland on one edge of the farm.

Made up mainly of black poplar, it was planted in the 1960s for Bryant and May to make matches from. But it never got used for that purpose, and since Marcus and Annie have spent the last five years putting in farm roads and buildings, it just sat there.

Neither Marcus nor Annie knew anything about falcons or owls, but one day they saw a copy of Falconer magazine. In it was an advert for a falconry centre at nearby Greetham and it set the couple thinking about their wood and what they could do with it.

Living space

A trip to Greetham turned up the owner Chris Lawton. Chris, to put it bluntly, is owl, falcon and raptor-mad. He had kept such birds since a boy and knew just about everything about them – but what he needed was a decent wood to give the birds more living space and a more natural set of surroundings.

One thing led to another and in September 1998 Marcus, Annie and Chris formed a partnership. This entailed establishing a falconry centre in the wood, opening it to the public and hopefully producing something that could make a small profit.

Though not particularly near to any centres of population, the farm does have a couple of natural advantages. One is nearby Rutland Water, a Mecca for bird-watchers in particular and holidaymakers in general. Also close by is Barnsdale Gardens, former home of the late and much-respected gardener Geoff Hamilton, which also draws a lot of nature-minded people.

First, though, the falconry centre had to be built. Planning permission was sought and gained easily, largely because the centre involves only wooden aviaries and buildings, all of them hidden away among the trees. There are no plans for conventional buildings or lots of concrete, so the environmental impact is very small.

Work began in January 1999 on building a series of large wooden aviaries. Twelve of these are grouped at the entrance to the falconry centre and another 14 out in whats called Hooters Wood. The ones close to the entrance house several different types of hawk, as well as things like falcons and buzzards. Those out in the wood are all occupied by owls, and it was the extraordinary cacophony of twit-twooing every evening that gave Hooters Wood its name. There are now a total of 65 birds on site, with more arriving each week.

Establishing a falconry centre isnt cheap, stress Marcus and Annie. Theres the initial cost of building the aviaries and buying the livestock. And then theres food. The 65 birds of prey at Burley are big eaters, with those that do more flying needing high protein meat like beef and quail (presumably on a silver salver).

On the plus side, birds of prey are a generally robust and disease-free bunch, stresses Chris Lawton. "Some of the foreign raptors are prone to frost-bite and need to be kept warm in winter," he says. "But with a healthy diet many owls will live to 60 and most raptors make 30-35 years."

Levels of interest

The Rutland Falconry and Owl Centre opens for business this month but everyone concerned has been pleased with the level of interest over the pre-launch nine months. Having an attraction that is still developing helps, points out Annie, since many visitors like to return to see how things have progressed.

Visitor numbers predictably peaked in the middle of last summer with an average of 50-60 people a day. But even on a cold Tuesday in winter they reckon to get a few cars driving up through the trees. The add-on activities have helped – falconry courses that attract groups from schools, WIs, riding schools and even tractor clubs as well as a chance to have a go at the noble art yourself.

Single-handedly

With Marcus effectively running the 240ha (600-acre) all-combinable-crops farm single-handedly, he doesnt have much spare time for the falconry centre in summer and autumn. So Annie, Chris and Chriss partner Jan Taylor shoulder the bulk of the work.

They have lots of plans to widen the scope of the falconry and owl centre, though they stress that only eco-friendly add-ons are being considered. "We dont want it to look like a zoo, so signs are kept to a minimum," says Annie. A series of nature trails through the woods have already been opened up, with the high point a magnificent view of Rutland Water and its surrounding woodland. They even plan to offer an evening walk so people can hear the twilight owl chorus.

Annie also already has a small animal rescue centre, with donkeys, pigs and goats (one 350lb pot-bellied pig arrived in the back of a Peugeot) which she plans to move closer to the falconry centre.

Marcus and Annie, with bird expert Chris Lawton (right). The Rutland Falconry and Owl Centre (07809-058995) opens officially this month.

The owl and falcon aviaries are tucked between the trees in an environmentally-friendly fashion within the 40-acre wood.