Baytree Owl and Wildlife Centre hit the headlines for the worst of reasons when burglars stole the star of its upcoming flying displays.
Manager Mark Birdsall believes Kevin the Great Grey owl was stolen to order and the chances of him ever being returned are relatively slim.
Five months of Mark’s hard work in training eight-year-old Kevin lay in tatters.
Kevin’s mum and dad, Molly and Will, still live at Baytree. Their lad was an iconic bird, loved by visitors, and there’s a real sense of sadness among staff and volunteers as Kevin’s enclosure has stood empty since February 16.
There’s a silver lining to this very dark cloud because the centre’s devastating loss was shared by nearly half a million sympathetic members of the public on Facebook ... and perhaps they will now be curious enough to visit this quiet corner of Weston and enjoy some good news stories at every turn.
• Mark is busy working with 12-week-old Murray the Indian owl who will become the new star of the flying displays for the public, which launch on Good Friday and run through to September.
• Visitors might be lucky enough to spot a red squirrel speeding overhead in a special run that goes between a couple of “houses” – better still, these squirrels are part of a breeding programme that will help the native species reclaim their place in the British countryside.
• Visitors can soon meet a baby fox as well as a tame fox called Ruby, who was bred in captivity and raised alongside Mark’s pet dog – Ruby, a favourite with schoolchildren, goes home with Mark two or three nights a week to sleep beside her white German Shepherd dog pal.
• One of the oldest residents, Kelly the Secretary Bird, is getting a wonderful new enclosure – and he’s being taught for the first time how to do a little display inside that before, perhaps, joining the displays for the public.
• In the pipeline for next year is an exciting plan for a new British native species butterfly house.
Back in 2011, the then Baytree Owl Centre staved off the risk of permanent closure when garden centre boss Reinhard Biehler managed to find a resident falconer to take charge.
Mark arrived as manager around 18 months ago, adding the words “and Wildlife” to its name to reflect the wider species of animals that can be found there today.
His Indian owls are named in honour of that country’s cuisine so we have Mango, Tikka, Poppadom and more.
When a Cockney pal spoke about going out for a Ruby Murray (curry), it planted an idea in Mark’s head: the next Indian eagle owl to hatch would be Ruby if a girl or Murray if a boy.
Inside a 100ft polytunnel on Thursday, a vocal and fluffy teenage Murray was showing off his skills in flight, effortlessly and gracefully gliding between distant posts in no time at all.
Mark said: “He’s a little star to be fair. He’s just coming up 12-weeks-old and, by the time the displays start, he will have grown all of his feathers.
“He will take Kev’s spot.”
Mark’s passion for his job and deep love for the animals in his care is clear as he walks through the owl centre and recites the back story of each resident, including the oldest, Gracie (28), a Verraux’s Eagle owl, and another old-timer, Kelly the Secretary Bird, whose new enclosure is twice the size of his former home.
Secretary Birds prey on snakes in the Sahara, stamping them to death with their feet.
Mark said: “There’s ten times their body weight in the leg strike.”
The centre opens year-round, although it closes on Mondays during term time, and Good Friday, March 25, sees the start of the 1.30pm flying displays open to the public through to September.
Admission fees and donations go towards further developing the centre and the new enclosure for Kelly is the big project for this year.
Development can only happen at a steady pace, despite the centre being run as the leanest of ships, because it relies on income coming through the door in the form of paying visitors.
Mark said: “I run it as a partnership with Reinhard, who owns the garden centre, and then I have one part-timer who comes and helps me out.
“All the rest are volunteers. I have at least one volunteer a day.”
• As well as being a tourist attraction, Baytree Owl and Wildlife Centre is a great learning resource for children and hosts 30-40 school trips each year.
There are around 100 owls and birds of prey resident year round, but that number can surge to 140 with new arrivals hatched in the brood unit thanks to the breeding pairs on site.
Mark is moving the centre steadily forwards, adding a new conservation corner in the foyer where visitors can see field mice. The spot is still under development although it already has a fantastic, wildlife backdrop – a glorious hand-painted mural on three walls.
The British countryside painting is the work of Samantha Thorley, from Wigtoft, whose mum, retired teacher Ewa Thorley, volunteers at the owl centre.
On Trip Advisor, Baytree Owl and Wildlife Centre scores four-and-a-half stars out of a possible five as tourist attraction.
• Follow the centre’s progress on www.facebook.com/baytreeowlandwildlifecentre/