I was a teacher for many years, but I had an illness that meant I had to retire. I’m not the sort of person to sit at home, and I eventually got bored of doing nothing. I decided to become a guide at Belvoir Castle, and then worked as a receptionist there for a year. Every time they’d bring their birds past me, I’d start feeling absolutely terrified. It got to the stage that when I heard them coming I’d run into the office to get away from them.
But on a trip to Germany I saw a fantastic hawk display and decided that I had to fly birds, and the only way to do that was to get over my fear of them. As soon as I got back I volunteered to help. I was really scared to begin with, but luckily, we had a little owl who took to me immediately. I worked my way up from owls to hawks, and I’m now the Head Hawker at Belvoir Castle. His Grace, the Duke of Rutland, personally asked me if I’d like to do the role, as he actually owns all of the birds.
My day starts very early in the morning, and the first thing I do is catch the birds in the indoor mews. I don’t tether them, as they were many years ago by the former Head Hawker. We then weigh each bird to decide how much food they’re going to need that day. If they’ve put on too much weight we reduce their food, and if they’ve lost a bit of weight we increase it. Eventually, when the food is prepared, they’ve had their medical checks and we’ve made sure the place is spick and span, we take them out to fly. You need to check them every day, but it’s not boring at all. The birds don’t object because they know you so well, and it’s something you realise is very important for their well-being.
We don’t encourage the birds to hunt because we work with so many children, and the two things don’t combine well. If the birds are hunting they need their beaks to be long and their tongues to be sharp to kill their prey. But we want the children to be safe when we educate them about the birds; it’s important that the younger generation have an interest, as they are going to be our future hawkers.
One girl, who started working with us when she was fifteen, is now in her mid-twenties and is one of the best hawkers around. We do a lot of work with schools, and have one hundred children visit every day in June and July. We also visit care homes, where some of the elderly residents will volunteer to fly birds even if they’re in wheelchairs.
Once, when I was flying Rodney, one of the birds, he got spooked by something and flew off. He had a transmitter on his leg, and I had the receiver, so I eventually picked him up some distance away. He was at the top of a tree, and when I called him down he just looked at me. An hour went by, and he was still there, determined to enjoy his freedom. But when an air ambulance flew over, Rodney got scared stiff and immediately flew to my glove. That was quite a funny experience.
We’ve trained our birds to be very gentle, but sometimes I’ve had a duck or two brought back to me. You have to keep them at a level. If they are overfed, they won't go to hunt because they won't need to, and they'll just go and sit in a tree. If they're underfed they will go to hunt. If they're just satisfied, they will always come back to you.