Arriving at Belvoir Castle on a cold and blustery Monday, I am intrigued to meet the woman who gets up at the crack of dawn nearly every day to tend to the castle’s birds of prey.
Despite retiring from her job as a primary school teacher 20 years ago, Rhi Clark, 73, of Denton, arrives at Belvoir Castle every morning to tend to the castle’s three birds of prey, Percil the owl, and hawks Rodney and Scooby.
After starting as a guide in 2000, Rhi is now in her 18th season at the castle. Over the years she has taken part in several re-enactments and helped run the school projects, but her heart has always been with the birds.
As head hawker, it is Rhi’s responsibility to ensure that the birds are looked after every day.
When the Journal caught up with Rhi, she was already half-way through weighing each bird with the help of volunteer Kevin Parke, of Grantham.
When did you become head hawker?
I have been looking after the birds for nearly 10 years now. I have helped rear Percil the owl since he was just a ball of fluff and the hawks, who are brothers, were about a year old. Percil is 10 now and the hawks are about 11-years-old. As I have been their main carer for so long, we have an incredible close bond. They are all very trusting and allow me to handle them.
Why does the castle need the birds?
They are all working birds. The purpose of having the hawks is to keep pigeons off the roof. Pigeon excrement eats into the lead on the roof.
We let the hawks fly on the roof to warn the pigeons off.
What does your morning routine entail?
Two of us will arrive by 8.30am every morning. We weigh them every day. They are all slightly overweight at the moment as they are coming out of mault. We prepare their food each day. On average, Rodney currently has three chicks a day, Scooby has two a day and Percil has one and a half.
They have quail and a mouse on every Sunday.
We also massage their feet with ointment to keep them free from bumblefoot and that they are fit. They are only tethered when we clean their mews, which are also done every day. Afterwards, we take them into the castle grounds to fly them but not before fitting a transmitter to each bird. We take a receiver, so if they do fly away, we can track them. There is so much to do each morning, but the joy of getting to fly a real bird of prey is something very special. I see it as a privilege.
Is there anything that you don’t particularly enjoy?
Being a bird handler or ‘Hawker’ demands a high level of commitment. If I am unable to make it, I have to make sure someone is there to cover me. Food is very important, I have to make sure we order enough and remember to prepare the next days food. I even pop and see them on Christmas Day to give them some raw turkey and a cuddle. Preparing the food is not very pleasant but the reward of seeing them fly makes it worth it.
Thankfully I have a wonderful team around me who are all fantastic. They are all volunteers and do it out of love.
Can the public see the birds?
We often take the birds to meet the public when the castle is open. The public are also always welcome to watch when we are flying them. They are flown by over 2,000 schoolchildren every summer.
n Kevin started volunteering when his wife, Rebecca, was unable to make her shift and he stood in for her. He enjoyed it so much that he has since become a regular volunteer.
He said: “The best part for me is when the schools visit as I love to see the kids’ faces light up when they see the birds.
“We have also taken the birds to residential homes and to The Cree Centre.”