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Bird centre visitors take a dive

PUBLISHED: 16:56 27 July 2001 | UPDATED: 10:23 03 March 2010

THE foot and mouth crisis has left handlers at Suffolk's top bird of prey sanctuary living on a wing and a prayer – as they reveal their conservation projects are in peril.

THE foot and mouth crisis has left handlers at Suffolk's top bird of prey sanctuary living on a wing and a prayer – as they reveal their conservation projects are in peril.

The number of visitors has fallen in the wake of the crisis, and head warden at the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary, Julie Finnis, said that drawing crowds this summer is vital to boost funds for crucial outside projects, such as monitoring plummeting numbers of barn owls in the wild.

"I wouldn't say we are in danger of closing but we are currently struggling," she said.

"We were affected by foot and mouth the same as any one else. Not because we had anything sensitive here – people just stayed away.

"We are a charity and we are not just about bringing people in but we also have projects to do that help birds of prey in the wild. It's those sorts of things that are suffering more than anything else as what funding we do get is going towards the upkeep."

The worries couldn't have come at a worse time.

The centre at the Stonham Barns complex near Stowmarket, which employs two full time staff, rebranded itself earlier this year as the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary after years being known as the British Birds of Prey and Nature Centre.

An educational farm containing household pets, farmyard animals, and exotic creatures such as meercats, fell victim to cutbacks last year, but Ms Finnis is determined there won't be any more.

A busy summer is what's needed, she says, and to this end she yesterday hosted an evening for tourist officials from across East Anglia to see what delights the centre holds for families.

With more than 60 birds of prey, including a variety of owl species, red kites, a black vulture, kestrels and falcons, expert handlers give three fascinating flying demonstrations a day. Activities for children, such as tree rubbing, leaf painting and keeping countryside notebooks that educate them in the ways of rural life are also laid on every Tuesday.

"We want to show them it can be fun as well as educating. If they can learn about it when they are young, they are going to understand the countryside better when they grow up," she said.

It is changes in rural life and habitats that are affecting populations of barns owls in the wild, she said.

There are now only 3,800 breeding pairs in the wild – compared to up to 100,000 tawny owls.

With hedgerows disappearing from open country and existing only along country lanes, barn owls are brought into dangerous contact with motor vehicles as they hunt for food.

Plans are now afoot to create more uncultivated space around hedgerows. But in the meantime hundreds each year are being killed under the wheels of cars, explained Mrs Finnis.

Raising awareness of the barn owls plight is the main aim of the centre, which Mrs Finnis ironically abbreviated to SOS.

It could be an SOS of a different kind the centre is sending out, if the crowds which have lapped up the sanctuary's attractions in the past, don't come back soon.

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