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Wild weekends with the raptors

Valerie Hall shares a bird's eye-view through time and space at the Hawk and Owl Trust in Buckinghamshire

Whatever the direction of the wind, the eight-year-olds from the Gateway School in Great Missenden certainly - to quote Hamlet - "know a hawk from a handsaw".

They are visiting the Hawk and Owl Trust's new national conservation and education centre housed in an old turkey-plucking barn, which was rescued from the bulldozer, set up at the Chiltern Open Air Museum in Buckinghamshire, and opened in May 1995 by Princess Anne.

"There's a peregrine," says one boy, pointing to one of the birds in a series of eye-catching paintings on the walls: "It's fast because it has streamlined wings, so there is less drag." The paintings, by John Chalkley, portray the changing appearance of a landscape through the ages, and the birds of prey which would be attracted to the resulting habitats were added later by the naturalist Philip Burton.

Dr Anne Finnie, the Trust's education officer, uses them to illustrate her talks about human impact on the land since the Iron Age. "Hawks and owls are at the top of the food chain," she says, "and if anything happens to the landscape, it affects them first. They provide early warning of pollution and their survival relies on the conservation of all the plants and animals in their habitat and is a key to our own well-being."

She explains that the tree-covered Iron Age landscape attracted woodland birds such as the honey buzzard, whereas forest clearing for medieval feudal farming encouraged birds with bigger wings which hunt over open ground. With Victorian industrialisation, the building of railways and canals, and post-war policies which brought all spare land into production, destroyed hedgerows, and introduced pesticides, much wildlife was driven away.

Meanwhile, humans' attitudes to birds of prey have ranged from revering them and using them for falconry in the Middle Ages to regarding them as vermin and shooting them in Victorian times. Dr Finnie said: "They thought anything with a hooked beak would kill their grouse, even the honey buzzard, which only ate grubs."

The last painting points to a more positive future: "Nowadays, there is a move towards managing the landscape for wildlife," Dr Finnie said. Larger grassland corridors around fields and along roads have encouraged the return of mice, voles and insects, and provide a happy hunting ground for long and short-eared owls, hobbies, kestrels, peregrines and even merlins. The children see this for themselves in the medieval field where they sweep the long grass with large nets to see what wildlife they can find.

Although the centre does not keep captive birds, visitors are likely to spot wild birds nesting and roosting in nestboxes set up along a raptor ramble trail around the museum's woods and meadows - provided squatters don't get in first. "Squirrels are the bane of my life. They get in all my nestboxes," Dr Finnie tells the children. Resident raptors include tawny owls, kestrels, little owls, sparrowhawks and, in the previous year, a pair of hobbies and a buzzard. Live birds can also be seen at special events such as night-time rambles and "Really Wild Weekends" with live flying displays.

Not surprisingly, Dr Finnie has a horror of stuffed birds, so the raptors gracing the rafters of the barn and various perches are carved wooden ones. The head of one owl rotates 270 degrees. Children can peek into a tree cavity, look and listen to woodland sounds, push buttons on mini nestboxes to activate commentaries, and peer though a powerful pair of binoculars trained on a nestbox, a large plant basket suspended from a tree. Or they can find out about food chains by dissecting the indigestible bones, fur and feathers which owls regurgitate in pellet form.

The Hawk and Owl Trust and Chiltern Open Air Museum education departments run joint half or full-day environmental sessions for school and college groups.

Hawk and Owl Trust, Chiltern Open Air Museum, Newland Park, Gorelands Lane, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire. Tel: 01494 876262

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