Falconry Vet Richard Jones shares his history with us, looking back on the path that bought him to such a unique Veterinary skill and his experiences with other Birds Of Prey.
I wasn’t really raised in a ‘sporting’ household (unless you count cricket!) but growing up on the edge of the Snowdonia national park with my Dad, Glyn, a local geography teacher who still, in his late seventies, guides walking groups all over his beloved North Wales and my Mum, Lois, raised on a real life “little house on the prairie” farm in Canada, although I probably didn’t realise it at the time, a deep appreciation of the countryside and natural world was instilled in me from a very young age.
Much of my childhood with my brother Bryn and sisters Naomi and Sarah (which I look back on fondly and am extremely grateful to my parents for providing and allowing!) was spent, kicking a ball round the housing estate, fishing the river Conwy and surrounding lakes and running around/building dens etc. in Gwydir forest. On one particularly memorable occasion, being forcibly ejected by the forestry commission for abseiling down a cliff face with my little brother at the tender age of 13, with in hindsight quite sub-standard equipment without adult supervision!…. and so began the age of health and safety!!
Three pivotal moments, which I recall vividly on the path my life would take were firstly, our primary teacher Alun Williams, who is still an avid birdwatcher would regularly in his own time, take our young ornithologist club on local bird watching trips. The most memorable would include my very first sighting of a wild peregrine falcon at South stack lighthouse on Anglesey. From that moment on I became obsessed with trying to witness as often as possible, the in excess of 100mph hunting stoops of the fastest animal on the planet!
My First Falconry Display
The second was on a summer holiday visiting my grandparents in Orangeville, Ontario my Auntie Dianne took my brother and I to a Safari park where I was to witness my first ‘falconry display’. I was quite a shy child and there was no way I would ever volunteer to do anything in public but when the falconer running the show asked if anyone wanted to hold, what I’m pretty sure was a great horned owl, I am often reminded how shocked they were to see me in front of hundreds of spectators, leg it down the front shoving anyone in my path demanding it would be me…..I was truly awestruck!
Finally, during my first year of secondary school I was introduced to the classic ‘A kestrel for a knave’ by Barry Hines which seemed to be part of most school’s English literature curriculum at the time and would later be made into the best film in the world bar none ‘Kes’.
From that day on, I knew I wanted to be a falconer.
I recall shortly afterwards when asked by my careers teacher what I wanted to do for a trade, saying without hesitation “I want to be a falconer Sir”
He must have realised I was serious as he did show some vague interest and asked some sensible questions regarding the different species used, training methods etc which having ‘absorbed’ a photocopy of Phillip Glasier’s book “Falconry and Hawking’ I had no trouble answering. However, this enthusiasm was short lived as he then helpfully suggested I should look at joining the RAF….. but I might be a bit small!……..Way to motivate a child!
Thankfully with slightly more encouragement from friends, family and teachers I did end up helping to train and fly a friend’s kestrel at a hotel in Betws-y-coed where I washed dishes for pocket money. This sadly didn’t end well as I recall showing up for work one day and as usual, first port of call was Kes’ aviary which was strangely empty. I was informed by Dave’s Dad that Kes had suddenly taken ill the evening before and was taken to the vets but there was nothing they could do and Kes had died. I was mortified and don’t remember thinking it at the time but I do wonder if this incident triggered a change in career path as up to this point I’m pretty sure I still wanted to be a zoo keeper.
Ultimately, I managed to secure a place at Liverpool vet school accompanied by my trusty Harris hawk Casper (after Billy Casper, the main character in kes who I remember cost me £1200 which was a LOT of washing up and paper-rounds!)
The vet school at the time unfortunately had a strict no student pets’ rule, and I felt it at this point it was probably best to ask for forgiveness rather than permission and so before term started, with help from my dad and brother sneaked round the back of the halls and assembled his aviary in preparation. Amazingly Casper remained incognito for nearly 6 months until one of the equine lecturers found him with the aid of his Labradors nose. I recalled a previous conversation with him regarding the problems the equine yard was experiencing with starlings making a real mess of the stables and possibly transmitting salmonella. I suggested that what they really needed was someone to regularly fly a hawk down the yard to scare them off and by some incredible coincidence I had the very bird right here!
So Casper was allowed to stay and became part of the furniture of the vet school even putting a bit of food on the table for the students (not that they probably realised at the time!) as Joan the cook used to take some of the rabbits he caught for putting in the stews and curries!
Admittedly on occasion, Casper did get me into a bit of trouble when after being bitten quite badly by a squirrel, covered in blood and foliage, I burst into what I thought was an empty operating theatre to address his wounds much to the delight of the surgeon and anaesthetists who were clearly in the middle of a complicated colic operation on a very expensive racehorse!
He also drew some unwanted attention when he and I were caught on CCTV dismantling a moorhen he had just caught on a wealthy neighbours’ pristine lawn and how was I to know that when we all went home for Easter they would switch off the freezer allowing his rabbits to defrost and ooze unpleasant juices down the corridor (I was given quite a ticking off and actually fined quite heavily for the latter!)
After graduating, Casper in tow, I took up my first job in a proper old school ‘James Herriot’ style mixed practice. Greenhalgh and Heal vets in Burnley, in hindsight, provided the perfect balance of being thrown in at the deep end to get on with whatever needed doing, but with the assurance that the bosses/senior assistants were always at the end of the phone or in person to offer support. It was also where I met my wife Jo who was a locum at the practice to replenish the bank account after 6 months travelling through central America.
After spending most of my ‘work experience’ at my local vets in rural North Wales I always enjoyed and assumed I would go into farm work and the job in Burnley ‘almost’ confirmed this as I would particularly enjoy the farm visits, often with dog and hawk in the vehicle. I’m still not sure how much of this the bosses ever knew, but if I got the job done in good time the farmers would be quite happy to cover for me and let me have a quick flight at rabbits or crows down the fields.
Like most vets of my age the TV series ‘All creatures great and small’ played a huge part in my career choice and I know I probably look back on it now through rose-tinted glasses but driving from job to job down the country lanes of Lancashire on a sunny day, I did feel this was as close as it could get to this childhood veterinary blueprint. I always felt in those days, that if I’d given my best, even if things didn’t go to plan, the clients were grateful and I never even considered getting sued for negligence which sadly is no longer the case.
By default, I was already starting to do a bit of bird work as even though I was straight out of college, word soon spread that there was a falconer at the practice. I was then faced with the real dilemma of getting deeper into the avian side of things but as most opportunities in this field were part of a small animal practice, it would mean giving up the farm work. I battled with this for a long while but when a job came up at Caspers vet and practice where I had completed my college avian elective and work experience, I decided I would have to give it a go as at this stage I could always go back to farm work.
The Raptor Centre
I learned an awful lot from Neil Forbes and his team at the Clockhouse practice in Stroud and from the inspirational, entertaining and potentially quite scary, ‘Lady in the field’ Jemima Parry Jones MBE who ran the National Birds of Prey Centre in Newent. Jemima was also the daughter of professional falconer Phillip Glasier, the author of the book I had studied the photocopy of as a child.
A couple of years in Stroud laid the groundwork to apply for a residency/master’s degree program at the University of Minnesota Raptor Center under the tutorage of Professor Pat Redig, a bird of prey conservation legend who basically invented avian orthopaedic surgery as well as playing a big part in the restoration of the once extinct mid-west peregrine falcon following DDT associated losses .
The Raptor Centre treated sick and injured wild birds, flown in on North West airlines from all over the US and was the perfect leaning environment for us green, wide eyed international apprentices, allowing us to learn the intricacies of avian medicine and surgery without the added pressure of caring, worried owners. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed my time there which convinced me that avian medicine was definitely my ‘calling’ as I couldn’t believe I seemed to be getting paid for having fun!
I was also, during this time able to apply for my American falconry licence. In order to keep and fly a falconry bird in the US you have to first find an experienced sponsor/mentor willing to take you under their wing, pass a written exam achieving a minimum of 90% and finally have your facilities inspected by the Department of Natural Resources. Falconry and hunting in North America are quite rightly, very tightly regulated with even jail sentences handed out for serious infringements.
After successfully completing the above, I was granted a permit to take a single Coopers hawk chick from a full brood of four from a local nest. After rearing and training ‘Lola’ we would hunt/scare European sparrows and starlings on the agricultural college campus after work, which being non-native ‘pest’ species the college were more than happy with. On occasion this was done through the car window using the vehicle a mobile hide!
As a Brit I was very proud to be presented with a ‘game pin’ which I still treasure, for catching quarry with Lola at the NAFA (North American Falconry Association) meet in Iowa.
Strangely I also ended up flying a captive bred male European sparrowhawk or musket that came into the Raptor Center as a very sick chick. I was so fond of this ‘ninja budgie’ as he was christened by fellow Minnesota falconers club members, that I jumped through all sorts of hoops to get him on a plane with me on my return to the UK. There can’t be many falconry birds that have caught quarry on both sides of the Atlantic!
At the end of my time in the US, I decided to release Lola back to the wild and although I have to admit I had a tear in my eye, I was really happy for her as by now an extremely accomplished hunter I was sure she would thrive and I like to think her temporary career as a falconry bird actually improved her chances of survival with roughly 75% of wild raptor chicks not making it through the first tricky year.
I was sad to leave Minnesota and some of the kindest, most genuine people on the planet and I owe a lot to Frank and Trudi Taylor (Frank being curator of birds at the Raptor Centre at the time who without knowing me from Adam, took me into their home when I first arrived and very quickly became my surrogate parents) but I was now determined to stay in bird work.
After a few years employed in wildlife and exotic pet work, together with my business partner and multi-talented nurse/practice manager Carli Dodd, in 2010 we took the leap and set up Avian Veterinary Services in Cheshire, the only exclusively avian practice in the country.
A lot of people (apart from my good friends and family) felt a bird only practice wasn’t viable in the UK and was even asked if I might get bored just doing birds?………I learned very early on in life that if I had been told I couldn’t do something but wasn’t given a good enough reason why not, I should try and do it anyway and with 10,000 different species of bird on the planet to choose from and the wide variety of needs and problems they may encounter I promise, there is absolutely no chance of getting bored!
Where I Am Now
So that pretty much brings us up to date career wise with most of my spare time (which I am currently working on getting more of now I am rapidly approaching the big five O) is still spent chasing things with my current ‘Team Jones’ comprising Gwen my 8 year old peregrine (named after my favourite place on earth, the Ogwen valley in North Wales, where I spent many hours watching wild peregrines in my youth) and best mate Willow, a pointer bred by Stacey’s Dad and good friend Simon Tyers.
I am often asked by clients, what came first falconry or the bird vet work and the answer is most definitely falconry and birds of prey which grabbed me on the cliffs of Anglesey as a child and never let me go.
It has been a golden thread running through every aspect of my life and my medicine from that day on. I am just so grateful that I was fortunate enough to find my real passion in life at such a young age. Falconry really is a way of life, often hard work and all-consuming but the rewards are phenomenal. When your hawk allows you to be part of what she does in such close proximity, you melt into the natural world and become part of the spectacle that has enthralled humans for centuries.