Photo: Susie Kearley. Staff and volunteers give numerous visitor talks on owls and birds of prey throughout the day
On a bright summer’s day, Susie Kearley and her husband took a trip to Cambridgeshire’s Raptor Foundation – which alongside caring for its numerous residents that can be observed by their adoring public, doubles as a rescue and rehabilitation centre for injured and sick birds
THE Raptor Foundation, near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, has a sanctuary and visitor centre with more than 200 birds housed in aviaries across 10 acres of land. I visited it with my husband in the summer and our experience began with an introductory talk beside the owl aviaries.
A tawny owl was brought out on the keeper’s glove – she was hand-raised from hatching, so was really relaxed around people. Visitors asked questions, stroked her feathers and cooed. The keeper explained how she’d grown up at the sanctuary and liked contact with people, but wasn’t so keen on being woken up in the morning! Tawny owls are the most common owl in the British countryside, but they aren’t easy to see because they’re so well camouflaged. This was the first time I’d seen one. They’re also the only owl that makes the tu-whit-tu-whoo noise.
The Raptor Foundation is, first and foremost, a rescue centre and a sanctuary. Staff provide medical care for injured birds of prey and rehabilitate them with the aim of eventually returning them to the wild with a clean bill of health.
Liz Blows, the founder, says: “We do research into environmental problems and conservation matters, and assist students and professionals in assessing how rehabilitated birds can, or cannot, be successfully integrated back into the wild, depending on their final levels of recovery. We’re also involved with our vets in exploring pioneering surgical and medical procedures.”
Its wildlife hospital is equipped to deal with new birds admitted as emergencies and more than 150 sick and injured birds are treated there every year. The majority of patients are birds involved in road traffic accidents, orphaned juveniles and individuals suffering from starvation. Release success rates vary between 40-50 per cent every year.
“Native raptors that are housed at the centre act as ambassadors for their wild counterparts,” continues Liz. “We raise awareness through talks and displays about the things that affect the lives of these birds in the wild. There are breeding and release programmes for raptors throughout the UK and we endeavour to get involved where we can.
“The falconry team also raises awareness of conservation issues, with non-native species held at the centre through the flying display talks. For example, the snowy owl has become vulnerable under the ICUN Red List and the bateleur eagle [Terathopius ecaudatus] that comes from Africa is also on the list.”
The centre is open to visitors, with talks, feeds and flying displays held at regular intervals. It’s easy to spend a day going to the different talks and displays. Visitor entry fees help to fund the foundation’s rescue and conservation work, and it depends on volunteers and young people on work experience to help the staff achieve their goals.
Inside, the centre is like a small specialist zoo. In addition to hundreds of owls and raptors housed in aviaries, there are meerkats, and a bug and reptile house. A labyrinth of paths takes you to the different aviaries, where you can see many different species of owl and other raptors, while falcons, eagles and buzzards are on display on several lawns.
We watched the flying display at noon, enjoying a stunning display of an eagle owl in flight, then a bateleur. These glorious creatures were followed by a variety of other owls and raptors, each enjoying their opportunity for free flight.
The afternoon talk beside the buzzards told us more about the rescues, rehabilitations and releases. The hospital building is nearby and, at present, is caring for two red kites (one with a fractured wing), juvenile kestrels, little owls, tawny owls, and a barn owl with extensive feather damage.
There are talks and activities every half hour, so the centre certainly keeps the keepers busy between feeds, cleaning and various other duties. We had plenty of time to see the numerous different owls and raptors in their aviaries, too.
We watched the second flying display of the day at 2pm and an owl from the Harry Potter movies was brought out – an unusual hybrid. Liz says: “The sanctuary is not usually in the habit of breeding birds, but the centre is home to some hybrid owls hatched at the centre – the young of Fred and Lucky, an American great horned owl [Bubo virginianus] and an African spotted eagle owl [B. africanus]. The twosome would not naturally meet in the wild. One of the eagle owls appeared in the film Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire and his offspring have Harry-Potter-themed names: Snitch and Quidditch.”
After the impressive flying display, we walked around more of the aviaries, explored the bug and reptile house, and went to see the meerkat enclosure. Liz explains: “This is a new venture and is well received by schools and other groups, as it helps to link food chains with birds.”
Liz set up the Raptor Foundation in 1989, when she met a couple caring for two disabled tawny owls on a campsite that same year. She was taken aback by these wonderful owls and decided to get involved in caring for injured birds when she returned home.
Liz joined a raptor rescue centre, learned basic care skills and raised funds for the charity. Then, the rescue centre asked her to look after Boris, a disabled fledgling tawny owl who’d collided with a patio door and lost his sight in one eye. She nursed him back to health, but owing to the nature of his injuries, he was unable to be released back into the wild. He lived a long and happy life at the centre and it was only recently that Boris sadly passed away at a ripe old age of 28.
Then people started to bring other disabled raptors to Liz for emergency care and rehabilitation. By this time, she was looking after 130 birds and had moved to a house with a larger garden to accommodate the birds. Ramsey Raptor Rescue was officially registered as a charity and the numbers of birds in need grew rapidly.
It was 1996 when she moved again to the site of a derelict farm, which was made habitable before she moved in. It offered the space needed for the growing collection of birds and the raptors finally moved into their new homes in August 1996. At this time, the charity changed its name to The Raptor Foundation.
Today, Liz is assisted by her team of staff and volunteers who help in areas around the site, from gardening to handling and flying. The centre is also a great place for learning and offers training courses and work experience to vet students, graduates and anyone wishing to work with animals. They can take advantage of the experience and facilities available.
It has even had a visit from the Japanese Royal Family. From humble beginnings, the Raptor Foundation has developed into a renowned establishment for the protection, treatment and rehabilitation of raptors.
Journalist Susie Kearley writes on a vast range of topics, from wildlife to the paranormal.
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