JENNY STEEL  Wings Over Mull

 

           

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Contact Jenny to find out more about her freelance writing

WINGS OVER MULL

The west coast of Scotland, but it could be another world away from the frenetic everyday life that most of us lead.  A peaceful haven amidst stunning landscapes of mountains and glens, this is a place that bursts with wildlife.  There are golden eagles soaring over the mountain tops, white-tailed sea eagles along the loch sides and otters around the coast in many of the sheltered inlets.  This area is famed for its sea mammals too, so for the visitor there is always the real possibility of a glimpse of a minke whale or a dolphin.  Many of us dream of pulling up our roots and spending the rest of our days in a place such as this, but few of us have the nerve.

Sue and Richard Dewar had been visiting this small island for twenty years before they took the risk, selling their house in Reading and leasing a farmhouse and land from the estate of Torosay on the southern side of the island.  Their aim was not to sink comfortably into early retirement, but to bring to the island a resource and a vibrant business - an attraction for the many summer visitors - that would become a valuable part of the island’s economy. 

'Wings over Mull’ came into being in 2001 when Sue and Richard arrived, together with their 18 birds of prey.  Sue was well known in raptor conservation circles, having worked for several years for the Hawk and Owl Trust in Berkshire, first as a volunteer and then as National Co-ordinator of the Barn Owl Conservation Network.  Her work with landowners and farmers helped to reverse the worrying decline of these beautiful birds.  When not assisting with this valuable work, Sue, with husband Richard, gave dazzling displays with their birds of prey, to educate the general public and encourage a better understanding of raptors.   Richard, a life-long office worker, did not need too much persuading to give up his job and move to Mull.  His interest in falconry had grown as Sue’s initial half day training course, many years ago, fuelled a passion which culminated in a degree in raptor biology at the University of Kent.  Together they have put all their resources, both financial and emotional into what has become a way of life.

The first hurdle on Mull was to convince the local planning authority that they knew what they were doing - one visiting inspector was convinced the birds would need lights in their flight cages.  Patience and perseverance were the order of the day, and eventually permission to build the enclosures and to use an outbuilding as a Visitors Centre was granted.  Once the birds were comfortably homed, Wings over Mull opened with the first display for the residents of the island, who had so readily accepted Sue and Richard into this diverse community of natives and incomers, all working together to keep the community vibrant and alive.

Many species take part in the spectacular flying displays including Winston the African Spotted Eagle Owl, renowned for his very short attention span!  The displays are accompanied by an informative commentary on the ecology and behaviour of the birds and their status in the wild, for the Dewars aim to educate and inform their visitors, in part to counter the prejudice that still surrounds these magnificent birds.  Their skill in handling and training the birds is apparent when Megan, a young female peregrine, flies free for only the second time, happily returning to Sue’s fist for a morsel of food.  Sue’s delight at the bird’s acceptance and trust in her is amply apparent. The team includes Kenny Sutcliffe, an ecology graduate - a patient bird handler and trainer.  Kenny is prepared to live in a tiny caravan on site to assist and learn, but his work is to take him to New Zealand where he will be working on the conservation of the rare native parrot, the Kakapo.   In addition to the daily flying displays, other events are planned including hawk handling days when visitors can have the thrill of walking with a bird through the wonderful countryside.   

The 18 original birds have grown to over 40, and 25 different species reside here now.    Many injured birds are here for rehabilitation.  Alaska, a stunning bald eagle, was shot at two years old in her native America and Sue and Richard accept that she will never fly.  She is 7 years old now and could become part of a breeding programme if a suitable male can be found in captivity.  Other birds, including Sue and Boo the tiny Sunda Scops Owls, are also part of an ongoing breeding programme.  All British owls are here, and a barn owl nest box erected in the grounds already has a roosting pair of wild birds.   As the number of species grows the Dewars are adamant that they will not have either white tailed or golden eagle.  Although the risk of a bird escaping is very small, even the presence of these species could upset the native birds’ territories. 

Many of us dream of escaping 21st century life to pursue a dream.  Sue and Richard Dewar have done not just that, but become a valuable part of a community that has welcomed them with open arms.   Sue’s reputation has spread quickly on this island.  Injured birds of prey are brought to her for rehabilitation, and advice is frequently sought.  Recently, a male peregrine found its way into the ancient Abbey on the tiny Isle of Iona off the southwest tip of Mull, and Sue was immediately alerted.  As the peregrine had devoured one of the Abbey’s white doves it was perhaps surprising that it received such consideration, but services were interrupted until Sue could be recruited to assist with its release back into the wild.  As she watched, it found its way to an open window and silently slipped out before lures and nets were needed.  

This beautiful island is famed for its birds of prey – eagles, harriers, hawks and falcons.  The Dewar’s efforts with the birds they love will greatly increase awareness of all birds for visitors and residents of this special place.

© Copyright Jenny Steel 2017