The flying skills of falcons provide a spectacular introduction to a lesson in social history, writes Andy Farquarson.
It's a bright summer day. A group of children are staring at the sky. They are craning their necks and shading their eyes as they try to spot the falcon spiralling high above.
Geoff Dalton, of the Cotswold Falconry Centre, explains how the bird uses thermals to gain the height it needs to dive down on its prey. When he judges that the bird is ready, he calls out and reaches into a pocket for a long leather thong baited with a scrap of meat. He swings the lure around his head in a steady motion. Seconds later, the falcon hurtles over the onlookers' heads at more than 100mph, its outstretched talons slamming into the lure and grabbing the tiny morsel of food. The awesome display draws gasps of admiration.
"Education is the cornerstone of effective conservation," says Mr Dalton. "And the most effective form of education is to entertain. Our centre has something to offer pupils of any age, from key stage 1 through to A-level."
As well as welcoming school groups to the centre, Mr Dalton regularly visits schools in the Midlands to talk about the birds and demonstrate their flying skills.
"Certain breeds are quite suitable to be flown indoors, in an assembly hall for example," he says. "Falconry covers the natural sciences, such as biology, evolution and wildlife conservation, the physics of flight, mathematics, political and social history and so on. It can even provide a platform for current afairs debates on issues such as hunting and country sports."
Falconry - the hunting of live quarry with birds of prey - has a distinguished history. Originating 4,000 years ago in China, the sport travelled westwards through the Middle East, where it is still popular, arriving in the British Isles with the Saxons.
Initially, it was a utilitarian pursuit, putting fresh meat on the tables of rich and poor but, to the invading Normans, it was a sport to be reserved for the aristocracy and clergy. By the 15th century, strict laws governed who could hunt what and with which bird. Punishments for owning a bird above your station were draconian. Today, falconry is enjoying a resurgence as enthusiasts try to maintain old skills and traditions.
Birds of prey, geneically known as raptors, include falcons, hawks, kites, eagles, owls, buzzards and vultures. Most of these are represented at the Cotswold Falconry Centre where there are up to 100 birds at any one time, half of them in breeding programmes. That is not counting the two dozen or so birds Mr Dalton keeps at his home or the casualties brought in for veterinary attention. The number of birds in the wild is increasing, thanks to a run of mild winters and greater awareness of environmental and conservation issues.
The centre is based around a restored stone stable block containing the main displays, a weighing area, a small shop and a school room, equipped with chairs and desks for up to 24 children and a wealth of information, including wall-mounted pictures and charts identifying the different raptor species.
Outside is the weathering ground, a small lawn where the birds rest between flying demonstrations. The dozen or so raptors perch contentedly on and around the lawn, offering visitors a chance to sketch and photograph British species such as the common buzzard and kestrel, exotic hunting birds such as the Harris hawk, lanner and gyr falcons, and owls ranging from the petite barn owl to the majestic eagle owl. Beyond the lawn is the demonstration arena, with seating for 100 visitors.
Aviaries in a converted barn are home to the bigger raptors, including bateleur eagles, vultures and the UK native golden eagle. Nesting under trees on the fringe of the adjacent Batsford Aboretum are aviaries for breeding pairs of goshawks and peregrine falcons, which can be viewed discretly through peep holes. In the owl wood, the aviaries are shaded by shrubs and undergrowth. "We try to keep habitats and breeding cycles as natural as possible," says Mr Dalton.
He finds the birds endlessly diverting. "They are highly-intelligent," he says, "but they're also bone idle. Just like some pupils."
Cotswold Falconry Centre, Batsford Park, Moreton-in-Marsh, Glos GL56 9QB.
Tel: 01386 701043.
Open every day from March 1 to November 30, 10.30am-5pm.
Flying displays at 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3pm and 4.30pm.
Pre-booked school parties (limited to 25 pupils) pound;1.35 each for teachers and children.
Free visits to schools within a 50-mile radius of the centre in March and April.