The North East Falconry Center in Huntly is a humble, yet fantastic experience for Audubon fans of all ages.
Falconry has made a huge comeback over the last twenty years. Sure, there’s the actual working falconers who make a living training fine birds of prey to hunt for game birds like grouse and bring them in with the help of a hunting dog. But then there’s the growing interest in falconry sparked from the eighties with movies like Ladyhawke, into the international trend for medieval re-enactments, festivals and tournaments through to recent hit movies like Harry Potter, where owls (though not falcons) have been worthy co-stars.
The North East Falconry Center benefits from the latter, but its more associated with the former – traditional falconry and training and rearing of these spectacular avian wonders. In fact the center not only breeds falcons, eagles, hawks and owls; they also rescue ones that are injured or neglected. One of the staff shares with us as an aside that Harry Potter has been more of a curse than a blessing as every kid wants to own an owl as a pet. This means that there are the same risks of pet owning as say, owning a dog or a cat. Owls are fully grown at eight to ten weeks so there’s no cute chick phase and they require commitment – like having to source and feed young chickens to them, which can be challenging to some.
The center is very basic. A cafe/gift shop selling local products and owl and falcon merchandise, a yard full of aviaries, each holding a bird or owl, and a large paddock where twenty or so deer are grazing casually. The birds are kept separately as each has a personality and temperament that doesn’t mean they will play nicely with each other.
The falconry show is on at 11, 12:45 and 2:30. It’s seasonal and we’re lucky to catch one of the last days of the year. After that, the weather becomes too windy and brutally cold and the birds move inside to a heated shed and start to put on their “winter weight”. Several rows of narrow benches are positioned on the edge of the paddock for the audience and three wooden posts provide landing points for the birds. First up, we’re introduced to Hamish a super harris hawke who responds when called. The falconer invites each member of the audience to put on a thick leather gauntlet and after he pops a piece of infant chicken on the gauntlet finger, the hawk soars in and sits on the gloved hand, making direct eye contact with the guest. The bird is surprisingly light given its lean, muscular physique. The bird makes two to three feeds per guest before soaring either up into the trees of the adjoining lot or swooping up onto one of the shed roofs.
After the chance to interact with a hawk, a second bird is brought out – a peregrine falcon. These birds are incredibly fast and agile in the air, swooping, weaving, climbing and diving as low as ten centimeters above the ground. The falconer coerces the peregrine into delivering an intense set of aerobatic maneuvers by swinging around a pad containing a dead chick. The bird attacks, with the falconer each time swinging the pad away from it as it comes in fast. Eventually, after ten or eleven circuits, he slows down his swinging motion, giving the peregrine a chance to get its reward.
Finally, it’s time to play with the owls. Huntley is the only falconry center that offers the chance to actually interact with the birds and today, we are going to fulfill an item on Jess’s bucket list – getting face time with a real owl. The group is introduced to a small, white barn owl named Smudge. The little guy has the most intricate and ornate markings on his wings that when in the wild help him camouflage.
Smudge is fourteen years old and a real ladies man. He takes to Jess affectionately, accepting a scratch on his neck and dropping his wing it to encourage her for more. His feathers are so soft – softer than many parrots and his eyes are piercing, yet warm. He’s a real character and Jess has found true love.
Whether you’re a family, a Harry Potter fan, an animal lover or a medieval history buff, the North Eastern Falconry Center is a welcome stop off the tourist drive and for only 7.50GBP, it’s a budget friendly experience that delivers much more than the price of entry. It’s one of the only centers that allows guests (with no experience) to interact with the birds as a way of learning and we can’t help but be so grateful that we found this place and stopped in. We had such a great time that in all honesty, we would have paid more. A tip—we’d suggest planning for a 90-minute visit and taking them up on a great cuppa and slice of cake in the cafe after the show.
The North East Falconry Center at Huntly is the only falconry center in Scotland that lets you interact with the birds directly.
Broadlands Cottages, Cairnie, Huntly AB54 4UU, UK
The Center is open in summer months with shows at 11am, 12:45pm and 2pm. It’s only 7.50GBP – which is incredible value.