Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cause for concern?

Woodchurch is a small Kentish village around half an hour away from home by car.
I cribbed this information from their website: Long ago Woodchurch was in the middle of a forest which stretched from Pevensey on the coast to as far north as Tunbridge Wells. The earliest records go back about a thousand years. In 1100 Woodchurch was Wudecirce. Probably its church was made of wood but the current rag-stone building dates from the 13th century and took 200 years to complete.

On one of the sunniest days for a while we (myself and wife, Lizzie) decided to treat ourselves to a morning out visiting the Rare Breeds Centre in Woodchurch.

I was in particular looking forward to seeing the tropical butterflies again, (we had visited last year but a little earlier in the season) and it's always a joy to see them flying free within the enclosure.
Lizzie found the thought of the gardens and tea rooms more attractive I think but she was also looking forward to a much needed break.

Whilst we waited for opening time (10.30) we took a look around the gift shop (the building with the welcome sign). Lots of related gift ideas and the usual touristy things.
Having purchased a little, metal Gecko for the garden, we made our way to the entrance to pay the £8.50 each entrance fee. This included a 'free' sticker proclaiming 'I'm a rare breed'

Our first experience of 'wildlife' after being ushered through the entrance area and the 'wash your hands here' area was unexpected and less than welcome.

Under the (partial) shade of oak trees, a small area with a low fence contained the 'Birds of Prey'. We stopped to view, eager to see what they had on offer but at once Lizzie was concerned for the well being of the birds and once I'd put down the camera and looked at what she was pointing out, I could see exactly why.

There were quite a number of species represented. all with just a perch each and a saucer of water. What was upsetting Lizzie however were the tethers (is that the right term?) that prevented the birds from flying off or approaching visitors.

Each had not one but two, one on each leg with a short strap between keeping their feet fairly close together and making anything other than hopping/jumping difficult for them. They were obviously annoying at least one of the owls who had managed to catch a claw in one of these confining straps and couldn't free itself.
 We had to ask a member of staff to investigate. Luckily, there were some nearby but no actual staff member delegated to be at the area full-time to ensure the birds well being.

Click on photo for larger image

The centre is owned and run by the Canterbury Oast Trust who do brilliant work providing help for people with learning difficulties and are a registered charity. I don't want to infer that they are not providing what the law says is required for these animals but...the safety and care of the birds & animals must be paramount and I have to admit we both had misgivings during the visit.  Perhaps we are being unfair. or over-sensitive?

Is it O.K. to tether so many birds of prey, sometimes in what seems to be full sun and for 7 hours per day? Do they really need to be shackled in such a manner? Would just one tether be dangerous to them perhaps?

The little barn owl seemed distressed to us and was flying at the fencing in a disturbing and repetitive manner. We thought it was actually hitting itself against the wire, on examination of the slow-motion video we could see that in fact the tether was stopping it just short and snapping it backwards.
Click on photo to see animation sequence

The birds did seem to be in good condition to us and when the keeper went into the enclosure to look at the owl we had seen with it's foot caught, the little barn owl responded to him and seemed to us to want to stay with him. It jumped onto his hand and kind of snuggled against him and wasn't at all keen on being put back on it's perch.

He said to us that he was happy to pick up the owls but wouldn't do so with the larger birds of prey. That left us wondering just who does transport them to the enclosure daily and attend to any problems.

I suppose it boils down to the fact that we just don't like to see these wonderful birds in a captive, unnatural setting.
I guess they will be captive bred and would not survive in the wild anyhow, but to watch these knowing that they are displayed for the public in this manner day after day?

The reptile house was only small and housed about a dozen or so exhibits. We found them surprisingly fascinating and Lizzie even remarked that she had a few contacts on the internet who kept lizards etc.. and had always thought it 'a bit odd' but could now see how folks could want to keep and observe them.

Click picture for a larger view

The butterfly house was something of a disappointment for me on this occasion. Being later in the year, the butterflies that were to be seen were now looking a bit tatty as they do at the end of season. It was also hot and sunny and they were busy feeding, not stopping for the most part; making photographing them a challenge.

I did manage to have a long chat with the woman who looks after the butterfly house, and asked her if it would be possible to increase the native species that are housed at one end of the tunnel.
She explained that she was actually a horticulturalist and had been invited to take on the task of managing the butterflies as well. This meant that it was a huge commitment for her and to increase her work-load wasn't really possible for now. She also told me that it would mean 'catching wild butterflies to use' but I'm not sure that's true; there are reputable suppliers of pupae to the trade.

The butterfly house had a couple of interesting larva to see today. The first one is I'm fairly sure a third instar of Hyalophora cecropia-The Cecropia,or Robin moth.
It is a member of the family of giant silkmoths - the Saturniidae.

These are the largest of the American moths and will eat pear, apple and cherry, along with several other fruit trees and willow.

I was told that the larvae had been donated to the centre and as I've read that they are really difficult to raise indoors, I'll be keen to see just how they get on  and what the success rate is.

These are about the size of my little finger at present but by the time of the final instar they will have grown to around 4" (10cm)

The container that houses these was covered in fine netting, hence the rather less than sharp photo but it does give you some idea of just how impressive these larvae are.

Pictured on the left is how the moth that emerges will look.
As you would expect, it's quite a sizeable creature.

The second of the two caterpillars is Antheraea pernyi-The Chinese Oak Silk Moth.
I'm not too sure of which instar these were but would guess at 5th or possibly 6th?

Originally from southern China, they have become more widely distributed across Asia.

These are supposed to be much easier to raise indoors and will readily feed on both oak and hawthorn.

Chinese Oak Silk Moth

Chinese Oak Silk Moth Larva

All in all, a fantastic morning spent at The Rare Breeds Centre with one or two reservations. 
My next blog should be along fairly soon and will feature a visit to woodlands near to Herne Bay in Kent.

Until the next time then...

Postscript: If anyone has any thoughts on the Rare Breeds Centre and in particular the birds of prey, I'd love to hear from you. You can either comment directly here in the box top left of this post, directly below the post or by e.mailing me @


  1. It was a really nice morning out but I still keep thinking of those birds of prey!....
    The Canterbury Trust however do a lot of good works and provide employment and living accommodation for people with learning difficulties

  2. True Lizzie but that can't justify poor care of their animals and birds.

  3. No, I agree with you... I just keep thinking of them

  4. They're called jesses and all birds of prey in captivity wear them. They have them on as soon as they can fly and wear them all the time. I have a falcon and his never come off, he's used to them and never bothers about them. The leash that's attached to the jesses is just long enough to allow them to move around without causing any damage to their legs when they fly off the block. They only need fresh water by them as they only feed once a day which they eat at once. They won't eat again until they've coughed up the pellet (bones and feathers they don't digest).

    Hope this puts Lizzies mind at rest.

  5. Hi Tony,
    Great to hear from you and thanks for your input on this one.
    I made Liz aware of your comment and I'm sure she'll be along soon to answer you :) She does tend to worry about these things!

  6. Hi Tony thanks for your explanation ..I didn't realise that the jesses were so short or that they were on both legs, the little owl pictured had his claw entangled in its one and I had to get someone to come and sort it out.. The owl was (in my eyes) very distressed and it looked uncomfortable
    When I e-mailed the centre their explanation what that it was it's feeding time even though they didn't know what time we were there...
    Perhaps it would be a good idea for me not to visit animal centres again!!!!!!!!!

  7. Hi Liz,
    Good job you called someone ... that's not supposed to happen!! They should be snug enough so that can't happen. You're right, it was probably very distressed. As for their explanation ... the birds only get excited when they actually SEE the food, not on what time of day it is!!


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