Huxley's Bird of Prey Centre in Horsham
Huxley may be the bird with his name above the door, but he's not the most welcoming of creatures. He looks imposing enough with his piercing orange eyes, distinctive double Mohican ear tufts and the huge wing span which makes European eagle owls one of the largest on the planet.
But add to that a stubborn, aggressive temperament, and you have a bird who obviously cannot take part in the frequent flying shows that grace the bird of prey centre bearing his name. Indeed, AAH photographer Toby Phillips is the first person asie from the centre's founder, Julian Ford, to enter his aviary in several years. Huxley's attention was diverted away from Toby's camera by the offer of food – a chick, which was mercilessly dismembered.
Whilst he may not form part of the flying team, 40-year-old Huxley remains a popular attraction.
Julian said: "Huxley is a lovely bird and we have been through a lot together. "He came down in a cardboard box by train, all the way from Scotland, which is something you wouldn't do these days, but that was how things were back then.
"I saw him advertised in Cage and Aviary Bird Magazine. I picked him up from Eastbourne Station, and when I opened the box to make sure the bird was still alive, I saw these great big orange eyes looking up at me.
"He was two-years-old then, and ever since has been absolutely brilliant.
"Nobody else can go in to his aviary though, except for me. He is very difficult with other people. He is an old owl now, but in captivity some owls live up to five times longer than in the wild. A wild Eagle Owl might live for perhaps ten years, but can survive for 50 in captivity."
How it all began...
Julian founded Huxley's Birds of Prey in 1993, behind Hillier Garden Centre, which hadn't long been established in Horsham. At the time, Julian was already a well-known breeder of birds of prey, and had a large number in his private collection at Charleston Manor, where he was estate manager.
Even as a child he had kept birds, and gradually Julian developed his knowledge and passion as he took in rescued birds of prey. His collection swelled as was able to keep the birds within a walled garden at the Manor, in Seaford. During the summer months, the Manor would open its doors to visitors and Julian would fly some of his falcons.
But eventually, he decided that the moment had come to concentrate on the birds full time, so he left his position and opened his own business in Horsham. It's not been easy, and Julian admits that some of the pleasure of falconry is lost through the stress of running a business. But after 20 years, Huxley's is still a popular day out for families.
"This place had been empty for 12 years when we came here," recalls Julian. "There were a few old vehicles and years of rubbish piled up, so we had to scrape it clean and start afresh. A friend helped me to build the centre, as the idea was that we would be business partners. I was fortunate as I could leave all of my birds at the Manor, and gradually move them over as we completed the aviaries. We were finally ready to move in on Good Friday in 1993.
"There was never enough business to support two families though, so I carried on running it just with my wife and now a team of volunteers. We currently have Nikki Dexter, who first came here on the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, and Debbie Shaw. They both come in whenever they can. They love doing it and it works well for us, as they both know the birds so well."
About 80 birds of prey are on display
As well as birds of prey, there are a couple of gate crashers, most notably a raven and a kookaburra – a reminder of Julian's childhood years in Australia.
Huxley's has about 20 falcons and 30 owls, and amongst the more unusual birds are a spectacled owl, bateleur eagle, snowy owl, Verreaux eagle owl and a pair of steppe eagles from Russia.
The centre is open five days a week for most of the year, but is only open on Sundays during the winter. Visitors can see all of the birds in their aviaries, but they can also meet the owls up close and see birds, primarily falcons and Harris hawks, flying on a scenic display lawn.
The lawn is surrounded by a garden which encourages butterflies and bees, and the walk around the centre is enhanced by plants such as bonsai trees. Julian said: "Visitors sit around the lawn and they like to see the
falcons fly around, and not come back when they are supposed to! People always find that very amusing.
"Then of course, people can take part by putting a protective glove on and flying one of our hawks.
"We operate under the regulations of our zoo licence and as with any zoo licence now, you have to educate visitors. We talk about the British owls and falcons in particular, and people leave having learned something, which is important. Children come up with really good questions, but it is the way you put it over which matters. Without blowing my own trumpet, I think I do put it over well!
"Because of all of the nature programmes on television, children know about animals like the Harris hawk from a young age, which is wonderful."
As part of the centre's education programme, Julian sometimes visits schools and also performs at events such as the South of England Show. School visits give young people the chance to be close to the birds," said
Julian.The birds fly over children's heads in the school hall, and they love it! We usually take our small kestrel as well as the ultimate bird, which is the peregrine falcon. Children love to see that as it's always on Springwatch or Deadly 60 as it is the fastest natural thing on Earth."
Julian's favourite birds are the falcons
He has always been fascinated by falcons, and holds a number of falconry records. He used to fly the oldest Peregrine tercel (male) which died when he was about 24-years-old, dropping suddenly out of the sky above Horsham one Saturday afternoon in what Julian calls 'the best way to go.'
Julian has had as many as five different falcons flying at one time at the centre, and has recently been flying three falcons. Falcons are very unpredictable," says Julian. "I have one bird that soars up to 4,000 feet on a warm day, which is an amazing height as the bird is not hunting, but is simply pleasing itself.
"Falcons will normally fly for the falconer. You can train them and fly them superbly most of the time, but occasionally they can think 'I'm not going back today!' We will then have to bring out our tracking equipment and go looking for it."
It has happened before, and one particularly large bird was never found. A bateleur eagle, a colourful species from Africa with a wingspan of nearly two metres, went missing during a display at the South of England
Showground in Ardingly in 2007. Extensive media coverage led to a number of sightings, some as far away as Northern Ireland, but the eagle was never found. Julian firmly believes the eagle, which was able to chew off its tag, is still alive in a private collection somewhere.
Seymour ensures that there is still a bateleur eagle at Huxley's. But some birds are notable by their absence. There is, for example, no golden eagle...
Julian said: "The Russian steppe eagle is very similar in appearance, although the golden eagle is marginally heavier. We do not have a golden eagle here as I do not want one. There is nowhere to fly them around here.
"I know someone has one in his own private collection and flies the eagle over the Downs. I've heard that it has been known to land on a golf course and steal golf balls!
"You need lots of space for a golden eagle, and you have to be sensible. The steppe eagles will fly here, as they need a slightly smaller space to fly, but a golden eagle wouldn't want to come back."
The tethered birds are the Huxley's flying team
They fly all the way through the summer at Huxley's, as well as at schools and events, but they are also employed by businesses to keep other birds at bay. Julian often takes falcons to the Biffa landfill site on the outskirts of Horsham, where the birds of prey keep seagulls away.
In the past, Julian was also known for breeding birds of prey, but has not pursued this as people were keeping the birds without the knowledge to maintain them. He said: "Sadly, some people get a bit of money and think 'I'll buy a bird of prey.' It is like a status symbol, and they buy a bird for the wrong reasons and don't know how to look after them.
"Anybody is allowed to keep any bird of prey. Some species are registered so you have to have a certificate to prove they are bred in captivity, but you can go out tomorrow and buy a golden eagle if you wanted to. There are some fine falconers around, particularly in Sussex, but you also have people who think that they can do it and they can't, which is very sad. Without decent homes for birds to go to, I couldn't keep breeding."
"So we fly falcons at the landfill site, and here too of course. We have different birds for different things, as all of the birds need to be flown and be given exercise as often as possible. We have had a reasonable summer at the centre, but there are never enough people coming through the door and without the outside work we wouldn't exist.
"I think we offer very good value. It costs only £4.95 and you can stay and be entertained all day. People can even sponsor one of the birds of prey, to pay for its food for six months or one year. "This can cost as little as £1 a week, and I think the most expensive is about £3 a week and for that you can see your sponsored bird whenever you like and fly it on the lawn. You can't say fairer than that!"
For opening times and display details visit the interncomsite at www.flyingfalcons.co.uk/ or visit the Huxley's Bird of Prey Facebook Page. You can also call 01403 273458.