Working On The Wing
Ben Potter’s love of the outdoors and the countryside led to a job training birds of prey – and he shares his passion at the many local events he attends to showcase his feathered friends
Pictured here is Camilla. She’s the one on the right.
She’s one of the 24 birds trained and flown by Dalesman Ben Potter (the chap on the left), a professional countryman and passionate outdoorsman. ‘I was the naughty kid at school,’ explains Ben, ‘I just wanted to be outside all the time.’ He first handled birds of prey aged 14 and soon was working full time at the Falconry Centre, at Sion Hill Hall, that’s a short drive from Boroughbridge.
Seven years ago Ben set up on his own and now he flies hawks, owls, kites, buzzards and falcons for his living, as well as rare sea eagles, white and bald eagles, and vultures from his farm up near Scotch Corner.
Training up a bird to fly freely can take as little as six weeks, according to species. ‘Eagles are clever and sly, like teenagers with problems,’ says Ben, ‘whereas vultures are like naughty, greedy, pushy kids and not so receptive to training. Basic training starts with me feeding them but not handling them straight away. By the end of Week Two, I should be able to handle them.’ He would expect an eagle to be flying freely and returning to him on cue in around six weeks.
It’s good to see how even the cool, cocky kids fall under the spell of the vultures.
The birds are trained on a reward system, with whatever they would eat naturally in the wild, where their diets range from small mammals such as squirrels, rabbits and mice to fish for the sea eagles. ‘I spend three hours a day, nine months of the year, flying the birds to keep them fit and active,’ Ben says. ‘The season of summer shows runs from March right through to October. I need to keep them healthy and motivated but if I overfeed them, they won’t have any incentive to come back to me in the show ring. They need to fly, feed and rest to be content and relaxed in the ring.’
Each summer, Ben takes his selection of vultures and rare eagles to as many as 140 events, but – although this would keep him more than busy – his job’s not just about enthralling the crowds by showing how impressive these massive birds are at shows. His bread-and-butter money comes from doing two or three sessions a day scaring problem colonies of seagulls and pigeons away from their nests on industrial sites, landfills and shopping malls. To do this he travels all over the country with his team of peregrine falcons, which are used to scare the unwanted birds away.
Another aspect of Ben’s work is taking his rare birds to inner-city schools, often in deprived areas. ‘Every year we do about 30 to 40 shows in schools; it’s good to see how even the cool, cocky kids fall under the spell of the vultures. They’ve never seen anything like them.’