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"Write something worth reading or do something worth writing" A blog by Amy Willis, a multimedia journalist based in London

Flying high with the falconer at Cardiff rubbish tip

Amy Willis looks into how protecting Cardiff’s landfill sites has become a soaring success with a trip to meet the falconer at Lamby Way.

From fireworks to gas canons there are a whole range of ways landfill sites attempt to fend off vermin. But at one rubbish tip in Cardiff a falconer and his birds are proving their worth in the battle against vermin and disease.

Aziz the falcon

Aziz the falcon

Colin Asquith, 38, in his woolly hat and florescent jacket, balances Aziz, a one-year-old Peregrine falcon worth over £800, on a thick leather glove at the landfill site in Lamby Way, Rumney. Colin has four falcons on site and another 20 at his home where he breeds them. For him falconry is more than a hobby or a job. It is a way of life.

“You have got to have a love for the birds,” he said.

Landfill sites in the UK are required by law to control scavenging pests like seagulls and crows as they can spread germs from the tip to the general public.

“Seagulls contain up to eight types of bacteria – I won’t even let my birds eat anything other than a bit of breast meat,” he said.

Colin explains how noisy pest deterring methods can end up frightening innocent birds nesting in the treetops as well as being a potential fire hazard.
“Using the falcons is much better as it means you can target one thing without causing panic to other animals, “ he said.

Colin shows Aziz in action using a dead chick on a piece of string. He attaches a radio transmitter onto her tail which will help him find her if she flies out of sight. Falcons have very little sense of smell so they rely on their eyes for hunting. He weighs her before the flight to check he is feeding her the right amount of food – too much and she won’t fly because she is too heavy, too little and she won’t fly for being too weak.

“When training the birds, you are constantly trying to find the bird’s best flying weight,” he says.

Colin removes her little red hood, which keeps her calm, so she is ready for action. She immediately starts flapping around eager to take flight.

As she is released into the air, Colin starts swinging the dead chick around so Aziz has a bit of a challenge in catching her prey.

About to take off

About to take off

In the wild, 80 per cent of Peregrine falcons, listed as a protected bird, die within their first year through injury or starvation. In captivity, they have flourished and their numbers have increased dramatically.

Aziz is rapid as she soars through the air. She completes a few laps before making a dive at the chick on the string. After a few attempts she successfully plunges towards the ground and lands with the chick in her beak. Colin is pleased.

He picks her up. As she feasts, Colin highlights the importance of letting the falcons kill a few seagulls every other day: “You have to kill some of the seagulls to make an association with death so the gulls learn to stay away. If you do not kill them the gulls get used to it and the falcons become ineffective.”

“Some falconers can be very lazy. They often won’t bother to let the birds hunt as it is a lot of effort to find the bird afterwards. The falcons can fly for miles.”
Colin tells me about one of his birds who took a liking to a school in Merthyr Tydfil after killing a Jackdaw nearby: “Every time I took her flying after that she kept returning to the school and peering round the doors. In the end I had to give them my phone number so they could let me know when she had gone there.”

Another time, he embarrassingly had to scoop up his bird as it fed on a carcass in a busy Tesco car park. Luckily, the bemused onlookers were relatively understanding.

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Filed under: Features, Portfolio

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