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Bolt from the blue

The power and majesty of birds of prey thrills pupils at a Yorkshire centre. Kevin Berry reports. It is flying time at the Dale Falconry Centre. A lone falconer stands in the middle of the flight area gathering the attention of visiting children sitting on wooden benches. He wears a huge glove on one hand as he welcomes his audience. Suddenly, the watchers become aware of a bird just a few feet above them. It soars, flaps and glides around the arena. It has a huge wing span. It turns toward a tree and then comes back to the falconer, sets down on the grass and then hops up to his gloved forearm.

This bird is a red kite, released by another falconer on a distant hill side. Later a Harris hawk is released, then a Lanner falcon and finally a magnificent bald eagle comes winging in. It is thrilling to see them, quite the most astonishing wildlife experience I can remember.

The Yorkshire Dale Falconry and Conservation Centre enjoys a superb location at the heart of the Dales near Settle on the A65. The Centre is on the slope of a wide valley, with towering peaks and tremendous long-distance views. The vast landscape allows the centre's many birds of prey to rise on the prevailing winds blowing against the hills.

Birds of prey are territorial with a marked sense of home, so they do not wander too far. The one glorious exception is an eagle with a poorer sense of direction who one day flew off to Scotland - it took him four hours but he came back in a taxi!

The centre has four falconers and four daily flight displays. The falconers talk to visitors with the buzz that only people with the deepest love for their work have, singular souls who suddenly pour forth their anecdotes and stories with more excitement than Peter Ustinov could ever manage.

Their partnership with their birds is far moved from that of trainer and animal. There is a bond between falconer and bird, a bond based on mutual affection and respect. Talk to the falconers and they will tell how thrilling it is to see a bird leave the glove and soar away until it is a speck high up in the sky.

I came away full of fascinating insights. Red kites were common in Shakespeare's London, scavenging in the rubbish-strewn streets; owls have silent wings because any noise would disturb their super-sensitive hearing; vultures are bald because their scavenging habits mean that they are messy eaters who could not preen head features. Apparently this latter fact once caused a chirpy youngster to mutter: "My grandad's a messy eater, and he's bald."

The nature of habitats and food chains is explained and readily understood. In the 1950s falconers were among the first to realise that chemicals scattered on the land were having a devastating effect on the food chain. Falconers in the 19th century were the ones to notice what was happening to lower forms of wild life when Victorian gamekeepers habitually shot birds of prey.

Visitors show no fear with these creatures. Why didn't the children recoil as the birds flew above them? Simply because they had been introduced to many of the birds beforehand. The falconer lifts the birds on his forearm and walks close to the children. Some of the owls can be stroked, other birds can have their claws touched. All the birds stretched their wings proudly as if they knew they were on display. Occasionally there was a screech of recognition or warning as another bird flew by. The children could appreciate at first-hand the huge eyes of owls, the talons of other birds and the way birds devour their scraps of meat.

At any one time the centre houses around 50 birds. Usually four birds are out flying. Demonstrations are rotated so that each bird has some flight time. Facilities are excellent and are being improved and increased all the time. As part of the conservation programme some disabled birds from South Africa are expected in the autumn.

Birds in the flight area are not performing tricks. They are wild creatures responding to the call of their falconer. What children are seeing is a bird of prey doing what nature designed it to do, soaring up to the hills, hovering on rising air or screaming to earth with enough force to kill a rabbit.

Some lucky children are chosen to put on a glove and welcome a bird. Wow . . . did I want to be 10 again! In another enthralling activity, a child is offered the chance to dash across the arena pulling a wooden rat on a long rope before a falcon can seize the rat. No one to date has ever beaten the falcon, but they keep trying.

The Falconry Centre is open throughout the year; in inclement weather the birds fly indoors. The falconers will tailor a visit to suit any age group and they welcome preliminary visits by teachers, or telephone calls if distance is a problem. They have had groups from infant schools to colleges. On the day I visited they were entertaining some 10-year olds from Burford Combined School in Buckinghamshire, in the Dales for a week to study a contrasting environment.

The children were as thrilled as I was. Ever been close to a South American condor? - I have!

* Admission for children Pounds 2.

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