Bird's eye view
The Hawk Conservancy Trust is home to birds, donkeys and ferrets, and is also heavily involved in conservation, rehabilitation and education programmes worldwide. GERALDINE GARDNER visited the centre in Weyhill, near Andover to find out more
It’s not every day that you sit having a chat while a burrowing owl perches on your hand – or even your head – but this is one of the experiences on offer when you visit the Hawk Conservancy at Weyhill, near Andover.
Set in 22 acres of Hampshire countryside, the bird conservation centre has grown considerably since the trust’s founder Reg Smith first opened its doors to the public in 1980.
Today the conservancy is home to more than 130 birds, as well as an array of donkeys, ferrets and meerkats.
There is also a hospital on site where injured birds and animals can be looked after before being sent back into the wild.
We started our visit getting up close and personal with the aforementioned burrowing owls. They are small, long-legged birds, who are not afraid to – literally – walk all over you and provide an extra special experience for small groups.
Head of living collection Gary Benton was on hand to answer any questions and demonstrate the owls’ ability to grab a tasty morsel – in this case a cricket – at any opportunity.
The family of four that we were introduced to were particularly curious about photographer Phil Cannings as he tried to get pictures.
The Meet the Burrowers experience is an additional treat to the general admission, but a most worthwhile experience. If you just want to spend the day wandering around the site there is plenty to see and do. The birds are all in large cages or tethered in open pens, where they sit and stare knowingly at the visitors as they look around.
There are plenty of information notices scattered around, plus a dinosaur trail – no dinosaurs on show, but an educational series of boards to keep the children entertained.
In the afternoon we watched the Valley of the Eagles flying display.
A team of vultures swooped over our heads and Black Kites showed their aerial hunting skills.
At one point music was played and the birds swooped and danced in time to the rhythym.
A Bald Eagle soared across the meadow, having flown in from two miles away, and sat majestically by one of the keepers as he was fed tasty mosels. We were then invited to take pictures.
This was just one of the daily displays put on by the team and despite the rainy, grey day, the audience of 40 plus were gasping as the birds came in low and seemed to perform a synchronised dance.
There is quite a lot of evidence that these displays have a positive effect on mental wellbeing and the trust is planning on carrying out research into the impact and how they can develop this aspect.
The trust isn’t just about entertainment.
It also runs conservation programmes worldwide, particularly in Africa, where it is involved in a project to protect vultures that fall prey to poachers, who, after killing elephants for their ivory, then lace the carcasses with poison, which in turn wipes out the vultures that feed on it.
In the UK, the trust runs a nest box project for birds of prey, specifically the Barn Owl, Kestrel, Tawny Owl and Little Owl. And they are also monitoring the UK Kestrel population, which has declined significantly since the 1990s.
Along with the hospital and rehabilitation centre, there is also an extensive education programme offering visitors and school groups an insight into the life of the birds.
Like all charities, the trust relies heavily on donations and membership, but they have also diversified and you can book birthday parties and corporate functions at the centre, and they even have a wedding licence, with a bespoke function room, as well as the large dining area available for hire – there aren’t many places where you can arrange for an owl to swoop in to deliver the rings during the wedding ceremony.
The trust is open all the year round, apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and a month at the beginning of the year (January 7- February 7 in 2020) when they carry out repairs and maintenance.
Displays run throughout the day and there are extra themed nights and events at certain times of the year.
If you’re looking for a family day out, the Hawk Conservancy Trust is great value with lots to see and do, a large restaurant and, of course, a gift shop.