Interview with Xanthe Bigwood
Falconry is in your family. What is your first memory of birds of prey in your life?
My first memory of birds of prey is probably when our imprint sparrowhawk learnt to fly. One day she was hopping ineffectively up and down in the little enclosure that we had her in, we went to bed and when we came down in the morning, she was on the curtain rail. I hadn't really realized before that, that it all happened that quickly. I just thought that she would get a little bit higher and a little bit higher, but she just got the trick of it and was off.
There was no stopping her after that. She left her mark on the house as well, so well that when we sold the house, we had to cover up the stains from her poo that we couldn't clean off of the wall. The house we moved to had a much bigger garden and that was where we got our first couple of owls - which I was actually allowed to do something with, having never been allowed to ruin the sparrowhawk by flying her.
When did you first realise you wanted to work with birds of prey, and why?
There wasn't really a moment when I realised that I wanted to work with birds of prey, there was a long time when I wanted to do something with horses instead. It just sort of dawned on me gradually and at some point I just knew that this was really what I wanted to do, and that this was what I had wanted for a while. The birds crept up on me and by the time I noticed, there was definitely a solid plan to do something with birds for (probably) the rest of my life.
You won a pest control scholarship.
Can you tell us a bit about what was involved and why it was of interest to you?
The pest control scholarship came about because the family business is pest control, specialising in using birds of prey to deter nuisance birds. I had to pass the exam so that I would be able to join the business and at just about the time when I was going to do it, the NPTA (National Pest Technicians' Association) [falconry has French words; pest control has acronyms] announced that it was going to start to do an annual scholarship. The winner would get their training course paid for by the NPTA. It was an effort to get more young people into pest control.
The application form had plenty of space for GCSE results, which I do not have, having never seen the point in taking the exams, but there was also an essay that I had to write about who I was and something to do with pest control. I chose to write about the effect of rodenticides on wild birds of prey.
As the pest control industry is full of men, none of us really expected me to win the scholarship. In fact having won, when I attended the training course, I was the only woman there. I did pass the exam and am now a fully qualified pest controller and have joined the family business.
The effect of rodenticides on birds of prey and other non-target species is pretty much a hot topic among pest controllers at the moment. There's even an organisation with an acronym for it, CRRU (Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use), which is something that I feel that everyone should really be made aware of.
Briefly speaking, if you find a dead bird of prey and test it for rodenticides then there's a probably roughly a 70 - 80% chance that it's got rodenticide in its system. What we don't really know is, is whether this an accurate representation of the prevalence of rodenticides in wild birds of prey? Or is it that the ones that have it are more likely to be dead because they're feeling sick?
If people stopped putting so much toxic bait down on a permanent basis outside and had a little more care for the environment, then the rates would probably drop. It doesn't help that toxic bait can be purchased by people with no qualifications, who really don't understand what they're doing and how much damage these poisons cause. It is not a nice death at all, and though I understand how hard it is to get rid of rats without them, I really don't see why non target species have to suffer just because people are chucking poisons around without thinking about what it's doing.
Have you had any particularly memorable moments with birds (captive or wild)?
There are many memorable moments to choose from. Probably the most interesting was taking a vulture called Inti to the Barbican Theatre in London, because he was half the cast in a play there! Literally, it was a one woman show and he was the only other cast member.
The play was The Testament of Mary and starred Fiona Shaw, whom you will probably know from that other great piece of bird of prey related popular entertainment Harry Potter (she played Aunt Petunia and did a truly brilliant job).
Inti was in a special pre-show bit, where the audience were actually allowed on stage to have a look at all the props and they weren't supposed to know that some of the 'audience' were really crew members constantly putting things back and some of them were really us as the vulture minders.
Inti was brilliant, as we knew he would be and we were terribly proud when both the director and the star said that he was much better than the vulture they'd had when they did the show in New York.
What is the most important thing that working with birds of prey has taught you?
As for what's the most important thing working with birds has taught me, I would say patience, but I have two younger siblings who taught me that years before I was allowed to do anything with the birds!
Probably the most important thing they've taught me is to know how little I know, at least if you acknowledge that there are things you don't know, you can do something about it.
The other thing is, that there is a certain inevitability in life that at some point you are going to get hurt by one of the birds and it will be painful, but you can't prevent it from ever happening and you just have to accept it.
Is there a particular bird you would like to work with in the future? Why?
The bird I would like to work with in the future is probably a red kite, because they have such a lovely, buoyant way of flying, that is so different from anything I've flown before; they are so beautiful and I see them all the time in the wild. I would love the chance to actually fly one.
You can find out more about the Think Wildlife campaign here:
Think Wildlife - Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use