Emma’s Eccentric Britain: falconry in the Lake District

I've come to Trotters World of Animals in Bassenthwaite, Cumbria. Eleven years ago, it was a farm focusing on rare domestic breeds but then the foot and mouth epidemic fell like a guillotine and more than 800 animals had to be put down.

"It was devastating," says Richard Robinson, the park manager, shaking his head. "But we've rebuilt and now we're part of a worldwide conservation effort. See that?" he says, pointing towards a pen, "that's a Bagot goat. There are fewer breeding pairs than there are giant pandas."

"Every time a panda gives birth it's on the news," I say, "Why don't they do the same for Bagot goats?"

"Exactly," says Richard, as if nothing in this world will ever make sense.

I'm here to go on a hawk walk. I'll be flying birds of prey off the arm and I've been told we're going to build up to something quite impressive. I've been shown into an encounter room. And I'm about to be tested.

I'm staring at a small owl. He's probably no bigger than my extended palm. He's got massive orange eyes and two tufts where you think his ears might be.

"He's a white-faced scops owl," John Foster, the birds of prey keeper tells me. "They originate from sub-Saharan Africa but this one came from Skipton. He's called Alan."

John pops a raw chicken foot into my gloved hand and Alan the owl takes flight and lands, as light as cotton wool candy, on to my hand. I watch as he gulps down the chicken's foot and then he turns his head and stares up at me. He makes an extraordinary noise.

"He's purring," says John, with a nod. I think I might love Alan the owl. "Good. You didn't flinch," continues John. "You'll be fine with the bigger birds."

We're going to walk out towards Bassenthwaite Lake with a Harris hawk called George. John is fantastic company, dedicated and passionate. There's an intensity to him that's tremendously appealing.

"It's important to always walk the birds the same route," he tells me. "That way, they know where they are. They can get their bearings. So if they fly off, they know how to come home."

"Do they fly off often?" I ask.

John shakes his head. "I've had a few occasions where they've gone for a couple of hours. And it's not their fault. I mean look at the place, it's beautiful."

He's not wrong. I'm staring out over Bassenthwaite Lake, the sun is sparking off the surrounding peaks.George has been sent away and is sitting in a tree about 30m from me. "He's twitching his tail," explains John. "He's ready for you. Get your arm up."

He slips a chicken leg into my hand and from nowhere, scorching across the skyline, George rips in and lands. Like Alan, he's not remotely heavy and I find myself beaming from ear to ear.

"I think you're ready for Bill," says John, with a twinkle. Bill is a bald eagle. John stares up at the tops of the trees. "No breeze," he says, frowning. "They like the wind. They need it. But we'll give it a go."

This time, I'm given an entire chick to clench between my thumb and forefinger. Bill takes off and soars up and to my left. "He's ready. Arm up," encourages John. I lift my arm, Bill swoops down, the sun immediately behind him. And then, something incredible and beautiful happens. As he reaches my arm, it's as if time is temporarily suspended and he curls his wings into a cradle, his feet pull up and with the sun bursting behind his wing tips, he comes in to land. It's one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.

"That was a life highlight," I tell John.

John grins. "Come back again!" he says. And I will.

• The hawk walk was provided by Trotters World of Animals (01768 776239, trottersworld.co.uk); one-hour sessions can be arranged for up to four people and cost ?30pp (participants must be aged 16 or over)

• This article was amended on 12 June to correct the name of the person in the caption


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