At the age of 25, Sophie Abbott is running the Bird of Prey Centre at Swinton Park, a luxury castle hotel in England’s Yorkshire Dales. She owns 25 birds of prey, and loves nothing more than introducing children to them on family falconry days. And it’s all because of Harry Potter.
‘When I was 11,’ she says, ‘I loved Harry Potter and I wanted my own owl. My mum said that if I learned how to look after it first, then they’d think about it. So I started going to a bird of prey centre every hour I wasn’t at school. After I’d been doing falconry for about four years, I got my first bird, which was a lanner falcon. Then I got a Harris hawk, which is the classic falconer’s bird. It was a few years before I got my own owl! But I started with Ellie the eagle owl, which is a pretty big owl, and then I got a barn owl. I love owls, they have so much personality. They have a bit of attitude.’
Among Sophie’s owls is a very unusual black barn owl, called Ash.
‘About one in 100,000 barn owls will be black. It’s a genetic mutation and normally they wouldn’t survive in the wild as the parents would reject them. But they survive in captivity and Ash is now five months old.’
In contrast to the black Ash is the pure white of Phantom, a snowy owl. Sophie also introduces me to Leo the long-eared owl, Willow the great grey owl, and her very first owl, Ellie, a huge eagle owl.
‘Ellie has about a ton of squeezing power in her feet,’ Sophie explains. ‘I got her from a council estate in Durham. She was in someone’s back garden, and in a bad state when I got her. I looked after her and got her back to good health. I found her a boyfriend to breed with but she tried to eat him.’
I get a closer look at Sophie’s great grey owl, Willow, and at one of her Harris hawks, when she brings them out and does a flying display for me. This not only exercises the birds, it feeds them too. The birds are so smart and so fast that even though they’re perched 20-30 yards away, the moment I lift my gloved hand holding a small piece of chicken, they’re landing on it and chewing away.
‘I fly all the birds every day,’ Sophie says, ‘except Chica, who can’t fly very well due to having had the equivalent of frostbite in the wing feathers. Chica and Lou are my Harris hawks. They’re like the labradors of the birds of prey world. They’re much easier to manage than other hawks. This new aviary was built as a breeding pen for the Harris hawks. I’ve had them for seven years and they’ve had two babies, so they could be doing a bit better. They are a bit like an old married couple. They argue with each other, he’ll bring her a present and she’ll turn her nose up at it. They’re sometimes comical to watch.’
Sophie introduced family falconry days about a year ago.
‘Normally on a family day the kids would fly a few barn owls, a Harris hawk and the great grey owl. I can fly birds with kids from about two or three years old and upwards. It depends on the child. I’ll do what I think they and the parents are comfortable with, but even little kids love it when a hawk or an owl flies across and lands on their hand.’
Sophie has also done special events with her birds, including a wedding.
‘The best man had this idea of having the ring delivered by a hawk landing on his wrist. When the time came to hand over the ring he pretended he’d lost it. He turned round and asked if anyone had the ring, then he raised his arm and the hawk flew down the aisle with the ring in a little pouch attached to its leg. That surprised the congregation… and the bride!’
For more details on falconry courses see the Falconry page on the Swinton Park Hotel website. Swinton Park is about 20 miles north of Harrogate, and for more information on Harrogate and the surrounding area see the Visit Harrogate website.
All photos (c) Donna Dailey.