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My family of owls

PUBLISHED: 14:42 31 May 2018 | UPDATED: 18:09 31 May 2018

Tonya Knights with Olaf, the three-year-old great grey owl, which she uses to educate children about nature. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Tonya Knights with Olaf, the three-year-old great grey owl, which she uses to educate children about nature. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2018

Six owls, and an inspirational woman, are helping children wise up to wildlife

Olaf, the three-year-old great grey owl, a member of Tonya Knights' 'owl family' she uses to educate children about nature. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYOlaf, the three-year-old great grey owl, a member of Tonya Knights' 'owl family' she uses to educate children about nature. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Tawny owls Arthur and Betty look like they have flown out of a children’s storybook, with their solemn round faces and fluffed brown and white feathers. Olaf is a great grey, native of the icy far north, his imperious face surrounded by circle after circle of black and white feathers.

Jonny is the baby of the family, a barn owl owlet just seven weeks old with lace-patterned wings and dark eyes gazing from a soft white face.

These, with spectacled owl Teddy and snowy owl Frost, are Tonya Knights’ family, sharing an aviary in her garden and working with her to introduce children across Norfolk and Suffolk to the wonder of wildlife.

Tonya fell in love with owls after visiting an owl sanctuary. “I’ve always had a natural empathy with all things nature and wildlife and rescued my first duckling when I was about six and named it Quackers,” she said.

Lana Townshend, left, and her sister, Eva, with one-year-old Arthur, one of a pair of tawny owls kept by their aunt, Tonya Knights, which she uses to educate children about nature. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYLana Townshend, left, and her sister, Eva, with one-year-old Arthur, one of a pair of tawny owls kept by their aunt, Tonya Knights, which she uses to educate children about nature. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Now she names her owl family after her human family. “Arthur and Betty Tawny Owl were named after my grandparents as tawny owls typically mate for life and my grandparents were married for 75 years!” said Tonya. “My barn owl owlet is named after my grandfather Jonny.”

Tonya was inspired to create her own family of owls after taking her nieces to Happisburgh Owls. She was soon helping out at the owl sanctuary.

Already a trained falconer she was mesmerised by the owls. “I love all birds of prey. They are predators, but they are mystical too,” she explained.

After reading that children were better at identifying characters from video games than the wildlife all around them, she thought her owls could help. “I have always loved nature and wildlife,” she said. “If you are brought up with nature it sticks with you. Nowadays it’s more of a synthetic world. Children can tell you more about a playstation game than they can about plants and animals.”

Arthur, left, and Betty, a pair of tawny owls and members of Tonya Knights' 'owl family' she uses to educate children about nature. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYArthur, left, and Betty, a pair of tawny owls and members of Tonya Knights' 'owl family' she uses to educate children about nature. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

So she set up the social enterprise Hoot With Me to inspire children to learn about, and care for, about the natural world.

“We as a community need to do our bit to stop nature disappearing from our children’s language,” said 49-year-old Tonya. She takes her hand-raised feathered family to schools and community groups across Norfolk and Suffolk.

“People’s first reaction is wide-eyed excitement,” she said. “But students of all ages, from reception classes or Rainbows upwards, always show respect for mine and the Happisburgh Owls owl family, no matter how excited they are initially. The first thing I do is to introduce myself to the group away from the owls to let the students know that an owl’s hearing is 10 times better than ours and even though they are all excited to see the owls, we all need to be calm and to use our quiet voice. The children never disappoint.”

Tonya also runs a charity called Let’s Do It Anyway,

Tonya Knights with Jonny, the seven-week-old barn owl, which she uses to educate children about nature. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYTonya Knights with Jonny, the seven-week-old barn owl, which she uses to educate children about nature. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

As a teenager she was very ill. Diagnosed with lupus her kidneys failed. She had to have most of a lung removed, and then at a kidney transplant at 18.

“I had problems with my heart, lungs and kidneys. At one point I was given three weeks to live,” said Tonya, who grew up in Lingwood, near Acle. But she went on to run for Great Britain, winning gold medals in the World Transplant Games.

She embarked on a career in sales but eight years ago was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I had always thought of setting up a charity, but after having cancer it really prompted me to do it right away,” she said. Named for the attitude of people she met who refused to be defeated by illness, Let’s Do It Anyway encourages disabled people to get active by helping fund sporty wheelchairs. Tonya organises an annual New Year’s Day swim at Sea Palling to fund wishes for disabled and disadvantaged children. “We’ve arranged for reindeer and donkeys and costumed characters to go into schools to meet children. It’s lovely,” said Tonya.

Hoot With Me, an educational social enterprise, is based in Badersfield near Coltishall and funded through Tonya’s part time jobs at a NHS call centre and as a freelance business development consultant.

“It’s about bringing wildlife back to the forefront of our minds,” she said.

hootwithme co.uk

DID YOU KNOW?

Barn owls, tawny owls, little owls, long eared owls and short eared owls can all be seen in the wild in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Two of the best places in Britain to spot barn owls are north Norfolk and the Suffolk coast. Try Salthouse Marshes, or Carlton and Oulton Marshes.

Other places to see owls include Happisburgh Owls and the Fritton Owl Sanctuary near Yarmouth.

Not all owls hoot. Barn owls shriek and when a female tawny owl says “twit” a male tawny replies with “twoo.”

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