Family Outings: World Owl Centre
Twit-twoo: teatime hunting with Sparky and Baldrick
The World Owl Centre is the headquarters of the World Owl Trust, a global organisation working to save threatened owl species and their habitats. The centre is also the public face of the Trust's work, and home to one of the world's most comprehensive collections of owls. Every bird here has been rescued from mistreatment, captivity or injury, or is part of a captive breeding programme for endangered species. You can expect to see up to 200 owls from 52 species and sub-species, from graceful barn owls to the grey owl, which appears to be wrapped in a large feather duvet, as well as birds of prey.
By necessity they are housed in large enclosures, though these are far removed from the more dismal displays you may have encountered in some zoos. The information area promotes the centre's strong conservation message and also houses CCTV screens showing the insides of nests. You will find the centre, along with its wonderful wildflower meadow, in the grounds of Muncaster Castle on the western edge of the Lake District.
Something for children
Try to get along for early afternoon, when the daily meet-the-birds display takes place. This involves a conservation talk and a chance to watch some of the owls and birds of prey participating in falconry exercises, though you won't be allowed to stroke the birds (not a wise move under any circumstances). The favourites include Sparky the barn owl and Baldrick, a common buzzard sponsored by the actor Tony Robinson from Blackadder and Time Team. Then take them around the enclosures and see how many owls they can spot - many, such as Mackinder's Eagle Owl, are well camouflaged.
Something for adults
Owls in the wild are hard to see, so this is a chance to view them close up in a setting that does not raise misgivings about captivity. Take Cugat, the Ethiopian eagle owl, given to the centre after she was rescued from a village where children used her to beg with, and had broken her wing and a leg so she could not fly away. Or the European Eagle Owl, the world's largest owl, whose habitat has been devastated by acid rain. Also look out for the enchanting ashy-faced owls, possibly the world's rarest.
Just a couple of minutes' walk away is Creeping Kate's Kitchen in the castle stableyard. It's a prettily painted place which serves a good choice of food. The kids' menu costs £4.95 and offers options, from fish fingers to baked potatoes and ice-cream. Adults could plump for the local speciality, a Cumberland sausage ring for £5.65.
It's a hard-hearted parent who won't buy a fluffy toy owl, which come in all shapes and sizes. Also on sale are a range of fleeces for around £28 each; general and specialist books on birds and ideas for your garden, including bird tables (£36).
Admission and access
The centre receives 80,000 visitors a year and can get busy when bad weather drives walkers off the fells. The gardens and owl centre are open daily, 10.30am-6pm. Entry costs £6 for adults, £4 for children. A family ticket (2+2) costs £18. Wheelchairs are available by the shop.
How to get there
The Owl Centre, Muncaster Castle, Ravenglass, Cumbria CA18 1RQ. Tel: 01229 717393; www.owls.org.
By car: Turn off at junction 36 of the M6, then the A590 and later the A595 signposted for Ravenglass.
By public transport: the centre is a 10-minute walk from Ravenglass train station (08457 484 950). The "mountain goat" minibus service runs tours from the central Lake District fells to the centre (015394 45161; www.mountain-goat.com).
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