Some places on the face of the earth have such a strong natural aura that human beings instinctively build shrines on them. Stonehenge is one, the site of the ancient Greek oracle at Delphi another. Yet our ancestors felt the power of most such places many centuries ago, and it is rare indeed for a new one to be recognised or created.

Nevertheless, I believe that something of the sort has happened in Haldon Forest, on the high ridge south-west of Exeter, where the Forestry Commission last year opened a bird-of-prey viewpoint.

Simplicity is the key feature of this lovely spot. You approach it between smooth twin trunks of Douglas fir, set upright in the ground like the columns of some ancient temple. Then suddenly you are on a level, circular platform cut out of the end of the ridge and commanding a phenomenal view. Around the platform are scattered a ring of primitive seats - again, sections of fir-trunk set in the ground - as if for a neolithic parliament.

Here, earth and sky meet. Below the site, deep combes plunge in all directions; further off, hills roll away into the distance, where the high tors of Dartmoor stand guard on the horizon, and out in the air, often level with or below the watchers, hawks of many kinds exploit the thermals - common buzzards, honey buzzards, goshawks, hobbies, sparrowhawks, kestrels, peregrines and even the odd osprey.

The viewpoint is the inspired creation of Robin Khan, the Commission's head conservation ranger for the south and west region, who has devoted the past 17 years to the study and conservation of wildlife in and around Haldon Forest.

Now in his sixties, he came to the Commission relatively late in life and from an unusual background. His father was a district officer in India, and he was brought up at Naini Tal, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where he had the good fortune to know the legendary hunter-naturalist Jim Corbett. As his first career, he worked in oil.

In recent years he has defended Haldon vigorously against threats from developers, among them those of a dry ski-slope and a Center Parcs holiday complex. It was largely through his advocacy, and the energetic reaction of conservation bodies, that in 1993 the whole area was designated an SSSI.

Now the raptors hold sway - and none engages Mr Khan's attention more closely than the honey buzzard, a migrant from Africa which is extremely rare in Britain, and is so named because of its predilection for the larvae of wasps and bees. This year only one pair has nested in the forest.

Mr Khan believes that his honeys come from Zaire and up over the Sahara. He describes with cold fury how macho young men stand on the roofs of apartment blocks in Italy to shoot them, with their girlfriends loading the guns, and do not even bother to collect the corpses or despatch the wounded.

Contacts in Gibraltar, the Dordogne and Cherbourg, and at Start and Prawle Points on the Devon coast, alert him to the progress of the survivors, so he can tell within a few minutes when they are going to reach Haldon every spring. By the time they arrive, they have burnt up much of their body weight and lurk about the forest ponds to stoke up on frogs and newts. Then they switch to invertebrates, and later they start digging out the nests of wasps and bees. With their scaly legs, and plates of feathers round their eyes, they seem impervious to stings: Mr Khan has watched the honeys become smothered in attacking wasps yet continue to dig regardless, except for an occasional shake of the shoulders.

To spend time in the forest with him is intensely rewarding, not least because he can predict the movement of the birds so accurately. On the morning I visited, he had me sitting on a heathery bank by 9am. The honeys' nest was way off in the distance, but within minutes of my arrival the male made a classic fly-past, right over our heads, on the way to his feeding-ground, even demonstrating the characteristic twist of the tail with which the species changes direction.

Clearly, Mr Khan cannot take every visitor into the heart of the forest - and that is the main purpose of the viewpoint: it corrals people in an area much frequented by raptors, but where they do not nest. For visitors it is a godsend, since its inspired positioning enables them to see what most have come for: to have a bird's-eye view of birds of prey from a thrilling eminence. If that does not give you good vibrations, I do not know what will.

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