If you want to open a birds of prey centre you'll need a few things. First, you’ll need a lot of birds: harris hawks, falcons, certainly a common kestrel, and try to get a few owls too (including a classic barn owl, which is handy for hiring out for weddings – when the vicar asks for the rings the owl can fly down the aisle and deliver them to the best man).
You'll also need experience. You’ll be doing shows in front of thousands of people, so you need to ensure the talent doesn’t disappear to join the local crow population in the middle of the encore. A couple of decades of experience should do it, preferably at the very top end of the trade, which means you’ve spent time breeding and training goshawks ('They're the ultimate hunting bird,’ says David, who we'll introduce properly in a minute).
Finally, the thing that will really make the centre a success is if you know a couple of kindly landowners, preferably with a beautiful castle in beautiful gardens, and they’re keen for you to set the whole thing up in their grounds. Is this all so much to ask? Apparently not. The Walworth Castle Falconry Centre, located in the grounds of Walworth Castle in County Durham, near Darlington, opened at the end of March and has all these things. It is the result of an enormous amount of hard work by owners David and Tori, a husband and wife team who met among the udders of a milking shed. Well, they got together among the udders. They actually met when they were children, growing in Teesdale, amid the farms and pit villages. 'Have you ever seen Kes? It's a little bit like that,' says 43-year-old David.
David was the first one to develop an interest in birds, back when he was a teenager. He loved birds. He also loved shooting and hunting; he used to take his ferrets out to hunt rabbits, and one day while he was out with the ferrets a man approached him. ‘He said he'd lost his harris hawk,’ David explains. ‘I didn't know what a harris hawk looked like, but I said I would keep my eyes open for it. A little bit further on I saw this bird in the wood, so I ran back down, caught up with this guy, and said, “Excuse me, I think I've found your bird.”
‘There was a reward out on it. He brought the bird round to the house to show me and I said, “Well, I don't want the reward but I'd love to go out hunting with you.” A couple of weeks later he took me out and we've been friends ever since. And that was it. I was able to get started then.’
He got a harris hawk (he named it Harry) and hunted for rabbits. Then he got a goshawk and hunted for pheasants. It was still only a hobby though. To make a living he did stonework and helped out on dairy farms, one of which was Tori’s grandfather’s. Tori earned her living training and breaking horses, but she also had a part-time job as a milk recorder. One day, six years ago, she arrived at a farm and David was there. They got chatting.
‘Pretty much on the first date we were talking about what we do – she was into shooting and dogs, I had dogs and guns and the birds,’ laughs David. ‘She was really interested so she started coming out with me to hunt with the birds, and eventually she did less and less shooting and more and more flying the birds with me. She doesn't do very much shooting now. She just flies birds.’
They moved into a house together on Tori’s parents’ farm, also in Teesdale, and David set up a shelter for his birds. There were also holiday cottages on the farm, and tourists would come over to look at the birds. One day someone asked if they could go out hunting with David. ‘It snowballed from there,’ he says.
They set up a company called Northside Falconry and started taking guests out for walks with the birds. Then they got owls and were invited into schools. They were asked to do their first show, at Bowes, and then started accepting private visits by appointment which is when they also got their first falcons.
‘It got to a point where we couldn't really get any bigger where we were,’ says David. ‘We were looking for a venue in Teesdale because as a falconry venue you always do better attached to an existing business. We were approached by Chris and Rachel Swain who own Walworth Castle. Basically we did a couple of private displays for them on the castle grounds and said we were looking for a site to expand the business and develop it further, and they immediately said, “Well, we've got a massive walled garden, you're quite welcome to come and set it up down here.”’
The new centre, which they started building in May 2013, comprises 20 individual enclosures. Tori is working at the centre full-time, while David still works on dairy farms three days a week and is planning to work there full-time after summer. Each day they have two displays for the public, as well as offering full days of falconry, three-day intensive courses (you can stay at the castle), or afternoon tea at the castle followed by a hawk walk. A hawk walk?
'Basically you take a hawk for a walk instead of a dog,' explains David. ‘You get supplied with a glove and everything, and accompanied by myself or Tori you go for a walk around the castle grounds and through the woods of the castle – there's an eight-acre wood – and the bird follows you and comes swooping down from the trees and takes food from your fist.’
The food is rabbit or day-old chick (they get them from the hatchery), both of which you can learn about on a falconry day. The centre also offers photography days and hunting days, and they’re available for hire by anyone who wants the birds at a party, fair or corporate event. The other thing they offer is the wedding service – the bird flying the rings down the aisle.
‘Some people tell the congregation about it,’ says David, ‘And some don't. The best man is supplied with a glove so when the vicar asks for the rings, Tori is at the back of the church and the best man will put his gloved hand up. A barn owl or another bird that the bride and groom choose will fly down the aisle and land on the best man's glove with the rings. It's really popular.’
Staggeringly, this has never gone disastrously wrong. The other thing you might expect to have gone wrong is for David to have lost a bird at an event. ‘I did do a show at Barnard Castle last year and I had a falcon fly up into the clouds. I thought he was going to swoop down spectacularly and he didn't. He disappeared.’
The bird was worth around £3,000, but David didn’t panic (he’s never lost a bird and not been able to find it). He carried on with the display, knowing that each bird is fitted with a radio transmitter, then after the show he got in his car and followed the beep of a radio signal. The bird was 20 miles away, near a church in Staindrop, hanging about in a tree. It came to the lure immediately. ‘You can't chastise a bird or anything like that,’ says David. ‘You can't play war with them. All you've got is a food reward. I'd let the bird's weight get too high. He wasn't particularly hungry.’
At the moment 16 of the enclosures at Walworth are occupied. There are four empty enclosures which will be filled soon. At the time of writing, David was waiting for the new occupants to hatch: a tawny owl, a little owl, a turkmenian owl and a buzzard. He’s also treated himself to a goshawk. It won’t be going in the centre though. He says they’re too aloof for that sort of thing. ‘No,’ he says, ‘That’ll be coming home with me.’
Walworth Castle Birds of Prey, Walworth, County Durham