The Hawk Conservancy near Andover in Hampshire, is a place of dramatic action and atmosphere. Flying demonstrations take place every afternoon, when birds of prey are let loose to swoop through the skies - and return. Visitors tend to be particularly spellbound by the condors, 11 feet across and more than 20lbs in weight, which skim above their heads and fight their way up towards the thermal currents that will carry them across the valley beyond.
The display in the Valley of the Eagles is not a predictable, tame demonstration, such as might be seen at any stately home or game fair. Once released from the high downland ridge, the birds roam further than the eye can see, according to the weather and their whim. Mowglie the bateleur eagle, elegant in flight but notoriously unpredictable, was recently set loose to show his skills one Monday afternoon and only glided back, fit but slightly overweight, during the following Friday's demonstration. Happily for poodle owners in Andover and Basingstoke, his diet consists exclusively of carrion. Aviaries at the Hawk Conservancy contain more than 200 birds of prey, both indigenous to Britain and exotic. Some are injured or disabled birds that would not survive out in the wild, some are members of rare species requiring captive conservation. Others, such as kites, which once scavenged in the streets of Shakespeare's London, are being bred in the hope of re-establishing wild colonies. The main aim of this charity, is to educate the public in the ways and beauty of the raptor. More than half the kites released so far in England have been slaughtered within months by farmers and gamekeepers, despite the fact that they are incapable of killing prey.
Children get a chance to handle small and harmless "imprints", convinced through long captivity that they are really human, whilst adults are allowed the thrill of drawing to the glove Harris hawks that know with utter certainty that they are wild hunters. Allowing time to tour the aviaries, one afternoon is scarcely enough time to appreciate the Hawk Conservancy. As Ashley Smith, the young, enthusiastic owner of the enterprise, happily admits, "I never have a clue quite what's going to happen."
Sara Macrae, an artist and designer from Amesbury in Wiltshire, took her son Calum 16, and daughter Athene, 12, to the Hawk Conservancy, near Andover in Hampshire.
Calum: "It was a really good day out. Seeing all the eagles and vultures up in the air was amazing, the way they could just glide about on their enormous wings, and I liked all the whistles and calling of the keepers trying to get them back. The kites were good as well, diving down like fighter planes to steal the food - and I enjoyed it when the Harris hawk soared in and landed on my glove. It was quite scary when I felt his wings brush past my face, but I still wanted another go. My favourite bird was the fish eagle, because it eats storks and flamingoes, which is really cool. I'd definitely come again."
Athene: "I loved it. I liked seeing all the birds in their aviaries and then watching them fly miles off over the fields. It's good they rescue birds and look after them if they're injured. Lots of the birds come back even when they're free and we saw some buzzards they let go last year up there with the eagles. I think my favourite was the secretary bird because it's got such pretty colours, but the condors were exciting when they flapped over us from behind the hedge because they were so big. I used to want to be a marine biologist, but now I'd really like to work with birds and handle them. The trouble is, all the handlers there were men, so I don't know if I'd be able to."
Sara: "A five-star day out, because there was absolutely nothing shoddy about it. You didn't feel for a minute that you'd rather be somewhere else, and all the demonstrations were so well done that it was like some thrilling theatre. There was a moment when all those magnificent birds were soaring up above our heads and swooping down towards us that was so uplifting I became almost ecstatic. You feel you're in the presence of something very special, and you don't often get that on a day outing with children!"
Location: The Hawk Conservancy (01264 772252) is signposted off the A303 four miles west of Andover, and is open daily between 1 March and the first Sunday in November from 10.30am. Last admission is 5pm in summer and 4pm in autumn. Flying demonstrations in the Valley of the Eagles are at 2pm each day and other displays are held at noon, 3pm and 4pm. A shaded area of the car park is specially reserved for visitors with dogs.
Cafe: There is an attractive cafeteria selling snacks and home-made pastries at reasonable prices. There is also an out-door picnic area beneath the trees.
Crowds: About 40,000 visitors a year. Not overcrowded even on bank holidays, and very peaceful on autumn afternoons.
Education plays a vital role in the work of the Conservancy. There is a study centre, with displays and inter-active computer programmes, and there are books on sale in the shop. One- and two-day courses on falconry and the practicalities of owning birds of prey are held throughout the winter season. Education packs are available to help with school visits.
Access for the disabled and children in buggies is relatively good, without any steps to negotiate, though some paths can be heavy going in wet weather.
Cost: pounds 5 for adults. pounds 2.50 for children aged 3-15. "Good value," said Sara. "And the fact that it's not over-priced means that we'll definitely come again."