TEENAGE REBELLION TAKES many forms. When Tom Byrne was growing up his father raced pigeons. Like all pigeon breeders, he hated hawks because they kill pigeons.
“Once I realised that, nothing would do me but to get a hawk,” laughs Byrne. It was the beginning of an obsession with birds of prey that ultimately led him to set up Woodlands Falconry ( woodlandsfalconry.com) at Rathwood, Tullow, Co Carlow in 2009.
Today he provides year-round hawk walks for visitors, costing €80 for two people, and €25 for each person thereafter, including entry into his Birds of Prey Centre which is home to more than 30 birds. If you want to visit the bird centre, it costs €6 for adults and €4 for kids, open Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 5pm.
In terms of a pecking order, the centre’s Golden Eagle takes pride of place. “I bought him from the UK, where he has starred in loads of TV and film work,” says Byrne, with no small amount of pride.
Which is not to say it’s his favourite bird: “They’re all my favourites, especially the falcons and hawks I bred myself, and my barn owl,” he says. He will, however, admit to having a soft spot for a turkey vulture called Princess, which he got “for the ‘ugly’ factor. “I gave it to my girlfriend as a Valentine’s gift. She still hasn’t forgiven me.”
Birds of prey centres have, if it’s not too close to a pun, taken off in Ireland. Until recently, your best chance of getting up close and personal with a raptor was to stay at a posh hotel. Now a number of centres around the country with official zoo licences are open to the public.
Lothar and Regina Muschketat opened their centre, Eagles Flying ( eaglesflying.com) in Sligo, in 2003. The German biologists came to Ireland to retire, having managed one of the biggest birds of prey centres in Germany. It wasn’t long before people began flocking to see their personal collection of birds here.
Twice daily displays of everything from small kestrels to white-tailed sea eagles with a wing span of 2.5m finish on November 7th, but you can book private hawk walks throughout the winter (prices start at €70 an hour).
It was Lothar who bred the famous pair released onto Inishvickillane, the island beloved of Charlie Haughey. Entry to the centre costs €9.90 per adult and €5.90 per child. The centre, which houses animals as well as birds, has more than 350 mouths and beaks to feed. It costs €800 a day in wages and feed just to keep the whole show going, the bulk of which is coming from Lothar’s fast diminishing retirement fund.
If you’re anywhere near Co Clare, don’t miss the Burren Birds of Prey Centre at Aillwee Cave ( aillweecave.ie). The complex also has a farm shop and craft centre. It has more than 40 birds of prey including sea eagles, harris hawks, vultures and falcons, with displays year-round at noon and 3pm, regardless of whether there are paying guests or not. So, even if it’s a wet Tuesday in November, you’ll still be sure of a show, according to centre manager James Irons, whose favourite, perhaps surprisingly, is a raven.
“He’s just so intelligent. Yesterday I put his food in an empty plastic water bottle and squashed it. Within minutes he had filled it with water from his bath and had flushed it out,” he explains.
Dublin Falconry ( dublinfalconry.com) is at Xtreme.iein Balbriggan. It opened in April, offering weekend displays twice daily, costing €8 for adults and €6 for kids. During the winter it will be offering privately booked hawk walks only. Founded by raptor lover Trevor Roche, it is home to a variety of hawks, falcons and owls. Roche remembers the precise moment when he got hooked – an awestruck 11-year-old watching an African eagle catch a monkey on a TV nature programme.
“What I love about birds of prey is that they are so regal and so mysterious,” explains Roche. “When they are up there, 1,000 feet in the sky, what stops them from just flying away?”