Here’s a day out with a difference. Nestled in the middle of Wales, not far from the quiet town of Llanelli, is the British Bird of Prey Centre. It’s not somewhere you would stumble across by chance, but this rural location in the heart of nowhere is precisely what makes it ideally suited to birds that are at one with endless skies, with untrammelled aerial views that allow them to pick out any unfortunate rodents (or even larger creatures) that could pass for dinner. The British Bird of Prey Centre is located within a stunning nature park, complete with a series of stunning walks and even its own waterfall. Keep going to the centre of the park though, and on a hill, you’ll find a long low wooden structure that almost looks like a stable: although there are no horses inside. Instead, there are birds, from eagles to falcons, but there’s one particular species that is fascinating to interact with – and those are the owls. We’ve all seen owls, but here you get to actually fly them: coming quite literally face to beak with these magnificent predators.
Emma Hill, who looks after the birds of prey, changed her life several years ago, swapping a normal existence as a sales rep for a mission to conserve and breed birds of prey in the middle of rural Wales. She quite literally lives with the owls, as occasionally they come home with her in the evenings. She’s been breeding owls for a long time, but now the British Birds of Prey Centre is a cutting-edge facility that carries out an important role in terms of national conservation.
It’s all funded by donations and entry fees, which is what makes the owl experience that the centre offers such a worthwhile investment. It’s not expensive and you get so much time with the owls that it’s an experience that sticks in your memory for a long time afterwards.
Meet Allan. He’s a barn owl; the sort that we would all recognise, with tufty brown features, large eyes, and a concave face, which acts a bit like a satellite dish in reverse. His physiognomy is shaped towards being the ultimate airborne killing machine. And yet, when he lands on your gloved hand, it’s like a feather floating onto a pillow. The glove is there to protect you from the sharpness of his claws but also from the gore of his snacks: you hold bits of dismembered mouse in your glove to encourage him to come to you. But when push comes to shove, he can eat the whole mouse in one go, which is an impressive feat. He’s capable of picking off animals that are much bigger than him too: for their Christmas celebration, many of the owls at the British Birds of Prey centre were given a celebratory rat to consume. It was mostly gone by the Queen’s speech…
Similar to Allan, but much larger, is another young owl that is currently nameless: let’s call her Patricia. She looks like a Patricia. Emma describes this great grey owl as a “big ball of fluff”, and that’s an accurate description, because although Patricia takes up a lot of space, she weighs deceptively little: it’s all soft and fluffy feathers. Arguably, she’s the most gorgeous owl of them all, and she belies her size by swooping gracefully through the air and settling delicately on the fist of your gloved hand (making it more reminiscent of a branch, which she loves to sit on).
The downy feathers are there to keep her warm as her natural habitat includes northern Canada, which is frequently sub-zero in winter. And of course, owls are mostly out at night, although these particular owls lead a somewhat easier life, coming out during the day and being fed by hand. It’s hard to imagine them adapting to life in the wild.
By far the most domesticated of the owls is Frodo, named after the Lord of the Rings character. This is because he’s even been known to deliver wedding rings; such is the extent of his talents. In fact, he’s more like a domestic cat that an owl, constantly emitting a miaowing noise that basically means ‘feed me!’
Frodo is much smaller and denser, and lands on your glove like a miniature cannonball. He’s very much a point to point oil: flying short hops from place to place rather than doing any of the long-distance swooping and soaring that Allan enjoys. And that’s because Frodo operates in very different conditions: he is an African owl, used to conserving his energy in the heat of the desert rather than beating through a glacial Welsh wind.
If you thought you knew about owls, you don’t until you come here. The owl experience at the British Bird of Prey Centre is well worth the journey for a truly unforgettable and educational encounter.
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.