Hawk on the wild side proves a grand day out

Scamp the Harris hawk
Scamp the Harris hawk
A visit to Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park, just west of Stirling, is one of the better Scottish days out. It’s not pricey (£11.50; concessions £8) and the main-gate entry fee covers most options once inside.

There’s scope for unhurried wandering to look at the wide variety of animals, some cook-your-own barbecue stalls are available for sunny days (but drop any thoughts of munching a meerkatburger), and the place has a nice easy-going feel.

The animals have reasonable amounts of space, the staff seem cheery and content, and these days – with the chimps confined to an island in a loch – there’s no risk of leaving with your car’s wipers wrenched sideways unless you’re unlucky enough to encounter the more neddish denizens of Stirling on their annual day out.

The park includes a bird of prey centre, and one of the extra-cost options is a “Hawk Walk” in the company of a keeper and a sharp-eyed, hook-beaked creature with yellow talons. This proved to be a very pleasant sunny Sunday option for your correspondent and his partner (whose birthday treat it was) in late September.

Our guide and bird handler was Ross Bibby, head falconer at Blair Drummond. He fitted us both with thick leather gloves, then selected a very neat-looking Harris hawk named Scamp from the birds on display – which included several little hawks and falcons, a beautiful barn owl, and various massive things including a sea eagle and a turkey vulture, neither of which you would want to have sitting on your arm.

We then ambled round the quieter fringes of the park for an hour or so. Scamp would fly off to some nearby tree, then return to land – less heavily than expected – on an outstretched glove, on to which a morsel of chicken had been placed.

He would then fly off again, we would stroll along, and everything was repeated – a process known as “following-on”. It was all very leisurely and rather soothing – Sunday morning was a nice time to do it. At one point we encountered a dead collared dove. Bibby gave it the once over, shoved it into a gamekeeper-style pocket, said “waste not want not” – and we strolled on. It was that kind of day.

The only interruptions came when we passed beneath power cables and Scamp was kept on his keeper’s glove for a few strides, then when a couple of women with a dog walked by and the bird disappeared up into the foliage for longer than usual to keep an eye on proceedings.

The hawk was impressively hawk-eyed, as one might expect. Even at a considerable distance, he would swoop instantly when a tiny scrap of chicken was placed on the glove. The approach flight was always smooth, with a final dip below glove level followed by a very controlled upward landing – letting gravity serve as a brake for the final second or so.

While we dawdled along, Bibby talked about his work with these beautiful creatures. He is one of three full-time bird of prey staff at Blair Drummond, having come to the park in the spring of 2007 following spells with the Gleneagles falconry school, Leeds Royal Armouries and the Lightwater Valley centre near Ripon.

“I generally don’t get called in as such,” he says, when asked if he works regular hours, “but if I have any concerns about any of the birds I will come in on days off or in the evenings or early morning to do what I can or to take birds to the vets. Fortunately this is fairly rare. It’s one of those jobs that takes over your life and you can’t just leave it behind at the end of the day.”

Birds of prey are valuable, but when conversation turns to “intruders” Bibby doesn’t mean night-time rustlers. “During the demonstrations we have had a few problems,” he says. “When the young swallows are fledging the parents aggressively mob the falcons when we are flying them in the shows, and we had a thrush come right into a crowd of people to mob a tawny owl that we were flying.

“During the season we have buzzards nesting in the woods just near where we fly the birds. They are very aggressive at some points of the year, mobbing our sea eagle and at times striking her, and we also sometimes have an osprey mobbing her as well.”

Thus far only Harris hawks have been used for the walks. “They are ideally suited to the kind of following-on type of flying and pick it up very quickly,” Bibby says. “It might be possible with other members of the buzzard family, but it is rarely done and I haven’t tried it.”

The quiet days of winter – when the park is closed but the birds still need attention – can be among the most rewarding times. “We take the opportunity to rest some of the birds that have been working all year, and train up those that need training to get to the standard we require of them. We do need to be careful when it starts to freeze; some of the more tropical birds are susceptible to frostbite and related problems. But as long as they are given extra food or heat or allowed to perch high enough off the ground to escape the frost, we are generally OK.”

Bibby attends the annual BIAZA conference (the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums), which provides “a good chance to meet others and to discuss management techniques”.

There is not, however, any regular breeding of birds at Blair Drummond. “We have bred some Harris hawks in the past,” Bibby says, “but there isn’t really the need for yet another person to produce these birds as they are so commonly bred – so we stopped. All our aviaries are a little too public, and I think that most birds would prefer less noise before they would settle down and breed reliably.”

Bibby used to deny having a favourite among the birds in his care – “they all had their own little quirks that made them interesting” – but admits that “Maddy the female Lugger falcon is my favourite to fly – mostly because she’s very good and a little unpredictable, which makes flying her a real challenge each day.”

Does he have any birds on his wish-list, a sort of Feathered Fantasy League? “I would love to get a couple of swallow-tailed kites for the centre,” he says. “They would be excellent display birds, and are stunning to look at.”

All in all, it was a very pleasant and informative morning – lovely surroundings, a knowledgeable and at-one-with-his-world keeper, and chance to spend time in the company of an impressive and unusual bird.

The Hawk Walk costs £35 including park entry. Blair Drummond starts its winter shutdown on 31 October, so there is still time for visit this year – or put it in the diary for the March 2011 reopening.