Shad does the New Forest Wildlife Park

John took me on a forest adventure this weekend to a wildlife park near Ashurst in Southampton.  It’s part of the New Forest, an ecologically rich area of grassland, heathland and woodland in the south-east of England which provides habitats for all kinds of rare and unusual plants, insects, birds and mammals.  The wildlife park is set deep in the forest and surrounded by tall trees that looked to me like giant fortresses topped with emerald-green and nut-brown foliage.  I could feel the eyes of the multitude of shy forest creatures that were hiding in the trees watching me as I trotted along next to John.

We followed the moss-veiled trails that led to some animals that I don’t often get the chance to photograph.  Like the big beefy bison that was lazily munching on some grass.  He appeared peaceful and unconcerned but I had no doubt that one insolent flick of my tail might cause him to lower his solid horned head and charge towards us.  I was pleased to see the lynx, with its short tail and tufts of black hair on its ear-tips, it had large paws and all the characteristics of a finely-tuned stealth survivor.  Then there were the gregarious and industrious giant otters, highly sociable animals who live in extended family groups.  They were most entertaining, sleeping happily together in huddles and playing noisily, barking, snorting and whistling at each other with enthusiasm.

All of these animals are highly endangered, struggling to adapt to habitat loss and fighting for their lives when they are hunted, the bison for their meat and skins, the otters for their velvety pelts and the lynx for their fluffy patterned fur coats.  Despite the humans that are willing to inflict suffering and even wipe out an entire species for the sake of fashion or status, there are many more humans willing to protect what nature has provided us and teach others to do the same.  The New Forest Wildlife Park actively promotes the conservation of animals through rescue work as well as participation in breeding programmes to protect the future of many endangered species, from our native orphaned and injured otters, owls and deer, to the European bison, the little harvest mouse and the rarely seen Scottish wildcat.

This natural forest environment was the perfect area for us to spot much local indigenous wildlife and, when I stopped to listen, I could hear the occasional drumming woodpecker or the scurrying of a squirrel crunching twigs and rustling leaves as it busied itself looking for its next meal.  Also looking for meals were the birds, like the bold robin who landed right in front of us hoping for a bit of John’s sandwich.  Don’t worry, regular readers know I like birds and I’m well in control of my hunting instincts, so the birds are safe with me (although John keeps an eye on me as a precaution)!

Shad does Huxley’s again

John and I took a picnic to the Birds of Prey Centre in Horsham this week.  We spent the morning wandering around taking photos, talking to the keepers, admiring the birds, having a laugh with the kookaburra and gazing at the flowers in the garden.  We got chatting to Julian, the owner, who works incredibly hard and gives every ounce of his energy to caring for the birds at the Centre.  He told us about some of the captive-bred birds of prey he has rescued, like the owl who was tethered in someone’s garden all its life, enduring all weathers and horrible children throwing stones at him, or the hawk who spent the first seven years of its life in a barn and never flew.  Sad stories indeed, but happy endings for these proud creatures now cared for at Huxley’s.

Huxley’s Birds of Prey Centre and Gardens

Despite the thick dark rain clouds overhead, the weather stayed dry, so we ate on the benches overlooking the well-kept lawn.  I had tuna and John had an egg and bacon sarnie which looked rather scrumptious.  I was feeling a little impish so I employed one of my ‘stretch and swipe’ techniques, managing to acquire a large piece of bacon, a blob of egg and a crust from John’s sandwich.  Good haul!  I had to nuzzle around him for several minutes afterwards to get back in his good books, but he was suitably impressed when I bravely fended off a wasp before having my early afternoon nap.

Flying Area

Flying Area

I was awoken at 2.30pm by Huxley the European Eagle Owl hooting at his dad (that’s Julian) as he got ready for the flying displays.  We were treated to a whole two hours of flying (pretty darn good for a fiver) and volunteers from the audience helped Julian and his team to fly the birds.  I wanted to have a go but the gauntlet (leather glove used in falconry) was too big for my paw and there were concerns for my safety.  Something about small mammals and talons!  Although John might argue that there’s nothing small about my gluteus maximus!



I opted for staying on my seat whilst we watched Cola the energetic falcon (lanneret) chasing the pigeons from the trees and Neo (another lanneret) fly to a swung lure (leather pad) which represents their airborne prey.  Khan (the Harris hawk) played hunting games with a ‘dummy bunny’ (dragged lure for a bird that would normally catch ground game) and the a rather enthusiastic kestrel called Turbo came out and squawked his little head off trying to impress his dad.  Mature majestic Marsha (a buzzard found in the Kent marshes) who flew graciously from person to person, not bad for an old girl of 30.  Most birds of prey typically live 10 to 15 years in their native environments but can live up to 5 times longer in captivity, thanks to good healthcare, plentiful food and no stress associated with surviving in the wild.

I always leave Huxley’s with a great sense of awe at the dedication shown by Julian and his team.  It’s not easy to run smaller zoos like this one with a limited budget and all the registers, insurances, inspections, licenses and other bureaucratic ‘hoops’ they have to jump through.  Calm down Shad!  Julian has a great sense of humour and was quite cheeky to me during the displays, teasing me because I asked him if birds have teeth!  But I can easily forgive such mischief because he loves cats, and has 3 of his own (all rescue of course).

Shad’s Garden Birds

As a well-loved pussy-cat, I’m lucky enough to have regular meals and a selection of warm cozy places to sleep.  I have also put many hours of practice into refining my techniques for charming John into giving me extra treats (no doubt he would describe it as harassment)!  But for the garden birds, finding food is hard work, so an extra meal from your kitchen or some commercially available bird food will help them keep going, especially during the winter months.

October is a good time to start putting food out for the birds.  Feed them until the end of April when they should be able to find plenty of food for themselves.  Although in long dry summers, the chaffinches will be searching for seeds that may be scarce, plus the hard ground might make it difficult for the blackbirds and thrushes to catch worms.  Treats you can put out include natural peanuts in their shells, wild bird seed, suet or fat balls (always remove and cut up any netting which can trap and kill wildlife), cooked rice, potato or pasta and bruised fruit such as apples or pears.

Now you might be wondering why a carnivorous member of the felidae species would know so much about birds.  Well I’ll tell you.  John and I like to photograph them and have spent many a happy moment watching them through the windows.  Feeding the birds has brought me closer to them and I marvel at their fascinating behaviour and wonderful colours.  I’ve watched them flirting with each other at the bird table and squabbling at the feeders, I ‘ve watched them play together in the snow and huddle up on a branch to keep warm.

According to the RSPB, over half of adults in the UK feed the birds in the garden, so that’s a lot of extra help for the birds!  But its important to feed them responsibly and safely.  There’s lots of advice about bird tables, hygiene, feeding and what birds to expect on the RSPB website.  Don’t forget to avoid foods that may be toxic to the birds or other wildlife as well as domestic animals such as cats and dogs.

Talking about cats, many of my feline cousins are hunters who might be tempted to lurk in a garden that attracts the birds so try to reduce the risk of cats catching them.  Any food on the ground should be at a distance from shrubs and thick grass where a cat could lie in wait ready to pounce.  Place feeders up high and away from surfaces from which a cat could jump and use spiny plants like holly around the base of a feeding stations to stop them loitering there.

Shad does Huxley’s Birds of Prey, Horsham

spectacled owl

spectacled owl

This spectacled owl (don’t you just love that name by the way?!) is one of the many falcons, eagles, owls, buzzards, hawks, kestrels and other character birds (such as kookaburras and ravens) who put on a spectacular show for visitors at Huxley’s Birds of Prey Centre in Horsham.

Read more – Shad does Huxley’s Birds of Prey, Horsham