Our story begins in 1977; a whopping 46 years ago! In fact it actually starts a number of years before that in the early 1970s. Eddie who was just a teenage boy at the time, thanks to his Mum had a love and curiosity for the natural world. Our story starts when a close friend of his wanted to get into Falconry, at the time, Eddie wasn’t interested in Falconry (which is hunting quarry with a trained Bird of Prey), but he was always there to listen and support his friend. After a while Eddie soon found himself asking his friend if he could borrow a book or two, after reading all of his friends books, it wasn’t long before he headed off down to the library and read everything that he could find there too.
Back in the 1970s, the Falconry world was ‘closed’, it was only available to a certain kind of man… In order to be able to join a Falconry Club you needed to have your own Bird of Prey, but in order to obtain your own Bird of Prey you needed to be a member of a Falconry Club, which you couldn’t be unless you had your own Bird of Prey… Can you see the issue here?! It was designed in this way, so that it was only available to the upper class. Of course if you knew someone in the Falconry Club then you were set, but if you didn’t, there simply wasn’t a way in. Eddie’s friend soon became frustrated with it and eventually gave up on the idea. Eddie on the other hand had extended his love of the natural world to include Birds of Prey, but like his friend still couldn’t access it.
A couple of years later a neighbour came across a baby Little Owl, not knowing what to do with it but knowing that the teenage lad a few doors up loved Birds of Prey, he popped it over to him. With no parents or foster parents available, Eddie had no choice but to hand rear the bird, and this meant that Diddly (as he became known) could not be safely released back into the wild. Instead he spent many years with Eddie.
Wanting to get involved with Birds of Prey now more than ever, he began travelling down from Dover to Chilham Castle (Canterbury) to volunteer with a small Bird of Prey team there that gave flying demonstrations. A few years later, for reasons I won’t go in to, the team that were there had been moved on, and Eddie too had departed. The owner of Chilham; an eccentric gentleman by the name of Lord Massereene wanted to have Birds of Prey back at the Castle, but had no idea where Eddie was or how to find to him, and it’s here that our story takes an interesting turn. One of Eddie’s friends was a member of the Jousting team at Chilham, and on a particular day in question the whole team were going out for a ride but Eddie’s friend’s horse had managed to throw a shoe, so he was waiting in the stables for the farrier to arrive. A short while later Lord Massereene and another employee from the Castle were taking a walk (as they often did), and by pure chance as they were passing the stables, Eddie’s friend heard Lord Massereene talking about Birds of Prey and saying that all he knew was that the lad was called Eddie, and he lived in Dover! The friend suddenly rushed outside and apologised profusely for seemingly listening in on the conversation, but told them that Eddie was his friend. Lord Massereene asked for Eddie to come down to the Castle to speak with them about putting on displays, and so The Raptor Centre was born!
Sadly in 1992 Lord Massereene passed away, the Castle was kept open for another year but then sold to a family that wanted to close it the public and have it solely as a private residence. During this time Eddie remained at Chilham, but had to find a new home, thankfully a new home came up on the Kent and Sussex border, a beautiful moated manor house by the name of Groombridge Place.
Eddie settled here with his birds, and in 2002 after a wonderful trip to The Hawk Conservancy and sudden interest in Birds of Prey, I got in touch with Eddie to ask if I could come down and spend some time with him and his birds. I was delighted that he accepted. He was an engaging and encouraging mentor allowing me to handle a number of his birds. I soon realised that being around Birds of Prey was something I wanted to do for the long term. In June of 2002 I bought my first bird; a male European Kestrel which we named Gollum, working around my other work commitments, Gollum and I began to work in the demonstrations. At the end of the year I moved to Groombridge and 2003 saw me embark on my first full season of working with the birds. Three demonstrations a day, seven days a week from April 1st until the first weekend in November, it was hard going but I loved every single second of it.
Unfortunately, earlier in 2001 Groombridge Place changed hands, and over a number of years we started to notice that things were looking a little a run down, and that little investment was being made. This got progressively worse, and it forced us to start looking for an alternative place to operate from. Of course when we started to look around in 2016 and 2017, it was clear that there were now so many small pop up Bird of Prey Centres, that finding new accommodation was not going to be easy.
In early 2018 we were introduced to one of the directors of Hobbledown Farm, and although it was a site that was completely different to what we had been used to, we entered into discussions about the possibility of moving there. They had already agreed a contract for the coming year with another Bird of Prey team, and so plans were put in place that we would move to Surrey at the end of 2018, and be on site for the coming year.
In September 2018 my Mum (thanks Mum!) stayed in a Premier Inn for two weeks with our eldest son, so that he could start in Year 7 at Secondary School on the first day along with everyone else. Meanwhile our daughter continued at her primary school in Kent, Eddie and I were giving weekend flying demonstrations at Groombridge. Mid September we got keys to our new house and at this point things got hectic… Every Sunday evening I would drive us all up to Surrey, and leave Eddie and our son there, and then drive my daughter and I home. I would put her to bed, pack some of our things into suitcases and boxes and load them all into car. The next morning I would take our daughter to school and then drive to Surrey, unload our stuff into the new house and spend a couple of hours there, then drive home and pick our daughter up from school. We’d go home, have dinner, and I would then load more of our belongings into the car and repeat the exercise the next morning! This gradual move took us 10 weeks! During this time, Eddie was working at Hobbledown building pens for the birds to live in overnight.
Eventually in November we hired a small lorry and moved the remaining larger items from our home in Kent to the new house in Surrey. We were nervous but also excited for this new chapter. We knew that settling down in Surrey was not going to be easy, the life that we had lived for so long, and the life that we loved, our friends and family – all of it was in Kent. I would say that Eddie accepted Surrey a lot easier than I did – sorry to all of you who love Surrey, but it really isn’t for me. Within a few months of being here I was begging to return back to Kent, but we couldn’t.
The new season was almost upon us, we got the first team of birds trained and flying free in preparation for the first demonstration in Surrey, most of the birds didn’t seem to object to the new location, and the few that did we had to re-home for their own welfare. The first demonstration went without any problems, and so did the next one and the one after that too… It seemed that the birds didn’t mind this new place.
The season went on pretty much like all of the seasons before had, the birds were flying well and were sitting on display nicely in the dappled sunlight in the copse too. After the summer holidays had finished, Eddie and I were sitting in the copse with the birds, it was a beautiful September afternoon, the sun was bright, the sky was a deep blue, the leaves on the trees were beginning to change colour and fall, a sign that autumn was on its way. September has always been both Eddies and my favourite month – the grounds are peaceful as the kids have gone back to school, but the weather is still very much beautiful, and we use it as time for reflection. Sitting in the dappled sunlight with the birds, listening to them occasionally call we began to chat about life here, despite the fact it had been a difficult start to the year (for namely me), and despite the fact that ultimately I still wanted to go home, we agreed that Surrey was okay, and that in time I would eventually feel settled and may even one day start to call it ‘home’. Eddie (ever the optimist) gave me hope that things would be okay, but if there is one thing that we both knew, it was that I was never going to feel truly settled here by the end of week; it was going to take time, a lot of it…
…Two months later Eddie was diagnosed with terminal cancer…
…Four months later he passed away.
We had just been placed into the first covid lockdown, and so family and friends were out of physical reach.
I couldn’t take any kind of compassionate leave because there was nobody else to look after the birds, it all fell to me. When the lockdown was lifted and things started to reopen, I began flying the Birds in demonstrations again. At the end of 2020, planning permission was finally granted to build the centre that I had designed, it was an exciting time, but there was a hint of sadness surrounding it – how unfair could life be, taking Eddie before he could see the build with his own eyes.
In May 2021 the build was mostly finished and opened to visitors, it was lovely seeing the birds free lofted in their new aviaries but something was still ‘off’, and of course it was Eddie’s absence.
In August 2021, I employed Laura, she had no experience of working with Birds of Prey, but thankfully she was a quick learner. We got on exceptionally well and very quickly became good friends. We shared many laughs and giggles throughout the day, but sadly it was never quite the same as working alongside Eddie.
More than 3 years on since Eddie left this world, and I will conclude this story by simply saying that since Eddie’s death, things have never quite been the same, and although you maybe thinking ‘ well duh’, of course it was never going to be the same. All I can say is that I no longer enjoy it as much as I did when Eddie was alive, and when it comes to feeling settled here, I didn’t then, I don’t know, and deep down I know I never will.
Not feeling settled coupled with being in an age where it seems that more and more people are showing a worrying lack of respect for animals, and instead think that they are simply there for their entertainment, in fact it was just today when I asked (yet another) child who was screaming odd roar like sounds, to view my birds quietly – the parent approached me and said ‘are the children not allowed to make noises at the Owls then?’ I genuinely have no words!
Stones being picked up from the path and thrown at my birds, people swiping out at them, reaching over and pinging the net or things being waved in the birds’ faces in an attempt to make them fly around in their aviaries, and screaming and shouting at them are just a number of things that my birds have had to put up with.
I strongly believe that it is now time to say farewell to this chapter, and therefore I have made the decision to close The Raptor Centre permanently.
It has certainly not been an easy decision, but after months of thought and reflection, I firmly believe that Eddie would have agreed – he would have been far less tolerant of people acting in a disrespectful way to the birds!
I would however like to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt thank you to each and every one of you that we have met over the last 46 years, the huge numbers of you that we have had on experiences, the hundreds of thousands of people that we have stood in front of during our demonstrations – Thank You – and I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed seeing and spending time with our birds.
To those of you that have always been respectful and considerate when viewing my birds, I will be forever thankful.
Finally I would like to acknowledge:
Chilham Castle, where Eddie was given the amazing opportunity to start The Raptor Centre.
Groombridge Place, where we spent 16 amazing years together as a family, and what will forever be known as ‘home’.
Hobbledown, for building lovely aviaries for the birds.
And a big thank you, much love and respect to…
Laura, my employee turned long term friend – thank you so much for being there for me on good days, on bad days and all the others in between. For loving and always looking out for my birds. For listening to me over the last year or so whilst I have been trying to make my mind up about my future, and of course supporting my choices, and not to mention all of the mad/funny/crazy chats we’ve had about life in general – I really couldn’t have gotten through this last year (or the one before) without you, and I look forward to actually having the same day off in the future and being able to go out to the pub on a sunny afternoon and continue to put the world to rights with you!
And finally, a huge thank you to my volunteers, past and present – you guys are fab, you’ve been a huge help, and it’s been a pleasure having you part of our little tribe, and I couldn’t think of a better group of people to bring everything to an end with.
Also I want to mention my Mum and her husband who have gone above and beyond with offering their help and support not just in this decision, but all the past ones and future ones I’ll be making too!
Peace n Love
Ronnie and the Birds
The Raptor Centre
1977 – 2023
You can continue to follow us on Instagram – I’ll be uploading pictures and videos of past and present birds. @the.raptor.centre
This website, along with our email will be shut down on January 1st 2024