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Someone gives a hoot

Muncaster Castle - home to the World Owl Trust - has plans to become an FE cent re. Ross Davies reports

The 2.30pm daily "Meet the birds" session is among the attractions for students, school parties and other visitors to the Cumbria eyrie of the World Owl Trust. There are over 50 owls to be met, one of which, a barn owl called Georgie, was portrayed on the Millennium Year second-class stamp.

WOT is a charity, a conservation and rehabilitation centre that breeds and studies endangered species from around the world. One owl in particular peril is our own barn owl - victim, says director Tony Warburton, of its faddiness over food.

"The barn owl is a specialist, and it's hard to be that if you're an owl these days," Mr Warburton explains. "Barn owls like hunting over rough, open grassland, where their prey is the short-tailed vole. But there isn't much rough, open grassland any more, except on road verges and, as the barn owl is a very light bird with long wings, it can get caught up in a car's slipstream and struck by the vehicle behind."

Half the barn owls treated at WOT's hospital are road casualties, and the other half are starving when they are brought in.

Another endangered species being bred and studied is one of the world's rarest, the Ashey-faced owl. This a victim not of food fads, but of American avian imperialism. In its native Dominican Republic, it nests in caves, but is being squeezed out of them by the American barn owl, a species which is bigger and more powerful than our own Georgies or the Ashey-faced owls.

"One of our projects at WOT is to work out how the American barn owl got to Dominica, and how it could be sent home again," Tony Warburton says.

At WOT, however, owl life is a lot easier and, if vole is not on the menu, the freezer is full of rats, mice and other goodies to tempt even the most discerning barn owl.

Other creatures with a particular interest in food who have been seen at WOT recently are tourism students from Lakes College West Cumbria, who are studying how 80,000 visitors can be catered for each year.

That's the number of humans the owls and other attractions draw to the 800-year-old Muncaster Castle and its 70 acres of gardens, near Ravenglass, which is where WOT has perched for the past 16 years.

Muncaster Castle itself was once home to an endangered species. The last Baron Muncaster died without issue in 1917, and left the estate to a kinsman on condition that his son changed his name to Pennington, the Muncaster family name.

Peter Frost-Pennington, the managing director of the company formed to run Muncaster, sees a future for the castle as an FE centre. "We have just secured funding from the Millennium Commission, the EU liaison unit and Rural Regeneration Cumbria, part of which is for a computer suite at Muncaster, and we'll now be talking to Lakes College West Cumbria and other institutions in and around the county about their offering residential training courses here. Long-term, we hope to employ trainers, seek accreditation and register as a training centre ourselves."

Accommodation for 16 students is already available.

Mick Farley, executive director of Learning and Skills Council Cumbria, says: "FE Colleges would respond positively to any approach they or we had from Muncaster Castle or elsewhere."

Cumbria's colleges, Mr Farley adds, are keen to meet the needs of individuals and companies, whether on campus or elsewhere and are already doing "useful" outreach work.

As Peter Frost - before his marriage to Iona Pennington - Mr Frost-Pennington, practised as a veterinary surgeon until "retiring" to help his wife manage the Muncaster estate. His commitment to FE extends to having done Lakes College courses in health and safety, as well as in licensed victualling.

"Being a vet as well as a licensed victualler, I'm one of the few people in the country licensed to sell both drugs and alcohol," he smiles.

FE, Mr Frost-Pennington believes, could put Muncaster to greater community use in rural Cumbria, and make a contribution to Muncaster's running and maintenance costs, which could soak up pound;1 million a year, were he not limited to spending what comes in through the gates in ticket revenue.

Privately-owned houses, parks and gardens do not qualify for public money or tax breaks on running costs in the way that National Trust, English Heritage or local authority-owned properties do, despite the fact that more privately owned properties are open to the public than those of NT and EH combined.

Whatever worries owls may have, however, cash isn't one of them. What's more, there's rat for tea at the World Owl Trust. And visitors who have spent time with the owls can leave them to their meal and move on to "Happy hour", when Muncaster's wild herons can be seen feeding.

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