A day in the life of a Norfolk falconer – what a hoot!

The birds under the care of Mark Christian of Norfolk Falconry in Beetley - Reporter Rosa McMahon feeds Bilbo the bengal owl. Picture: Matthew Usher. The birds under the care of Mark Christian of Norfolk Falconry in Beetley - Reporter Rosa McMahon feeds Bilbo the bengal owl. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Friday, January 10, 2014
12:50 PM

To understand the passion and perseverance needed to build a connection with powerful birds of prey, reporter Rosa McMahon spent a day with Mark Christian of Norfolk Falconry.

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Our reporter Rosa McMahon tries her hand at falconry

Eye-contact for most of us is a normal and expected way to behave when interacting with others. But if those ‘others’ are birds of prey – then that is wrong.

“Never look at the birds directly”, handler Mark Christian says, as I am locked in a staring competition with the eight pound owl, Baby.

She and the other birds are perched on their ledges looking at each other, and me, with a superior destain.

And Bilbo, the Indian eagle owl I flew through a forested lane, looked at me throughout the half day experience so disapprovingly I wondered if she would return to and from my hand at all.

Before meeting Mr Christian and his birds of prey I was nervous that the creatures might attack me or defy their handler and refuse to fly. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Instead the knowledge and ease with which Mr Christian explained each animal, its history and natural habitat, before preparing me to hold him or her, reassured me that each bird would treat me with the respect I gave it.

I proved I was not a threat and gained the birds’ trust, so we drove to a country lane lined with trees and with a chick’s leg in my gloved-hand, I called Bilbo to me.

Watching her soar from rooftops, treetops and telegraph poles, to my own arm was like nothing else.

Whilst her grace was a thing of beauty, it is clearly powerful too as she proved when a worm was spotted from the top of a house, and eaten within seconds.

Like the other animals in Beetley, Bilbo is full of personality, unique with her own traits.

And it is Mr Christian’s infectious passion for the birds of prey which makes it such a magical experience.

The feeling when a bird of prey silently swoops behind you to snatch a morsel of food from your hand gives some idea of the bond created between a falconer and his feathered predators.

Perched in a tree up high, Biblo the Indian eagle owl, knows the worth of the treat clasped between a fist below – all she has to do is catch it.

Under the watch of her trusted handler Mark Christian, and without a blink of her wide orange eyes – she lunges, does not land, and enjoys her snack.

Since Mr Christian, 42, brought Bilbo and the other seven powerful birds to Beetley, near Dereham, six years ago, his life has been transformed.

After buying a barn owl to temper his son’s fear of birds – the former lorry driver discovered a connection with his growing collection of owls, a kestrel, a hawk and a buzzard and set up Norfolk Falconry, a experience centre at his home for visitors.

There he has both rare and astounding birds of prey, including Baby, the European eagle owl who weighs a crushing 8lbs, Ice, the snowy owl, who has brought Mr Christian endless attention after Hedwig’s appearance in the Harry Potter film series.

There’s also Kevin the kestrel, Rosie, the barn owl, Ynette, the red tail buzzard, Anya, the harris hawk, and Merlin, the great horned owl.

“I bought the barn own and realised I knew nothing, and needed to learn,” Mr Christian said.

“You can read animals but have to learn where to look. I’ve always had a different way with animals and a huge lover of them. A lot of people can have animals, but not many people can understand them.

“It’s not a job or a hobby, it’s a passion and a way of life.

“I strive to train and keep trying to understand them. I have a connection with them.”

Such is the passion Mr Christian has for the birds, he says one day he prayed that his comprehension of them would grow. His son was later diagnosis with autism – and Mr Christian believes that was his answer.

With his hypersensitivity to sounds and movement, Mr Christian saw a similarity between his birds and his son and believes it is that which gave him a deeper understanding of his trade.

But as well as that, he says body language is a key part of what gaining the birds’ trust and getting the most out of them.

From handing the animals and getting them to trust you, to having the confidence and calmness to allow them take flight from a rooftop or a tree and land on your hand, Mr Christian says it all stems from the way we act.

“Personal respect is important,” he said.

“We find our comfort zone, and that’s even more important for animals, they can read body language and know how you feel.

“People tell you that you can’t lie to animals – I am telling you, you have to learn to. Whatever is wrong inside you have to be still and calm, and then they relax.”

To find out more about the falconry experiences at Norfolk Falconry, visit www.norfolkfalconry.co.uk

The half day bird of prey experience costs £90 each and is on a one-on-one basis. A guest is £7 each.

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