Meeting some owls from Hilltop Birds of Prey

Last weekend, S, his dad and I went to Manydown farm in Basingstoke because I’d heard that they were going to have some feathered visitors – owls from Hilltop Birds of Prey.

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while will know that I’m interested in owls. Anyone who knows me in real life will know my owl handbag that comes everywhere with me. You may have also seen my post about the rare breed farm and owl centre.

Whilst owls are wild birds, as someone who can’t see them, I’m always interested in getting closer to those birds that are comfortable with it, so that I can find out what they look like.

The birds from Hilltop Birds of Prey have all been rescued from somewhere, so they have not been specifically bred or taken from the wild. They may have been bought for children by parents who didn’t do their homework first or realise that an owl is not a pet that needs no looking after. They might have come from a zoo. Each one has its own story and I’ve put the link to Hilltop Birds of Prey at the end of the article.

These birds live at Hilltop Farm with other rescued animals such as a couple of donkeys and a rescue dog.

Meeting the owls

The first owl that we met was Jackson, a tawny owl who was only a year old. This made him the youngest of the owls there, but he is fully grown. He is still getting used to people, and although he perched quietly when we met him, he wasn’t quite as chilled out as some of the others who, like a dog, would just relax and let you stroke them for ages!

Fun fact: Tawny owls have short wing spans, which makes it easier for them to hunt in woodland.

Next came Wispa, the Little Owl. She was a little owl, but that is also her owl type. At over 10 years of age, she was a mature lady, and was very comfortable being handled. She was very small, but then being a little owl, that’s not surprising.

Fun facts: little Owls are between 21-23 cm long, with a wing-span of 54.58 cm. They were introduced to the UK in the 19th century.

When Wispa went back, the next thing I heard was the flapping of some big wings! So I guessed the next owl we would meet would be larger.

And it was – it was Yorkie, the European Eagle Owl. She has powerful wings, but isn’t bothered much about flying. She knows her food will be provided, and she was happy just to sit there being admired!

Fun fact – the European Eagle Owl is the largest species of owl. They liv all over mainland Europe and there are a lot of them in Scandinavia. They are also breeding more in the UK now.

The final bird, whom we didn’t meet, but who was also there was Fox, the Peregrine Falcon, whose official name is fox’s Glacier mint. You may have noticed the confectionery theme of Wispa, Yorkie and Fox’s Mints!

There was no entry fee to see the owls, but you could make a donation to support the running of the centre and looking after the owls. Mike was happy to answer my questions about where the owls came from, what they ate, how they got along (very well seeing how close they were together), and where they lived (each in their own space).

Find out more about the owls

The owls are not usually at Manydown –they just came for a visit.

This is the link for the Hilltop Birds of Prey website, which is not open to the public. So if you want to go and visit, you need to sort out the details in advance.

The Manydown shop

While we were there, we also bought some things from the shop, including some diced beef for a stroganoff, some sage and onion sausages, and some lamb kebabs. All very good quality and reasonably priced. Oh, and caramel shortbread, which I can also recommend for a sugar hit! They have a good range of meats, ready-to-go snacks, sauces, chutneys, biscuits, cakes, tarts – and there’s a Facebook page for the farm shop too.

What is your favourite type of owl?

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My riding story – horse riding with a visual impairment

I wrote this post because of a request that I received in the comments. I was asked to talk a bit more about my experiences with horses and horse-riding as someone with a visual impairment, so here’s my horsy story.

How it all started

I knew that my teaching assistant, who helped in maths and science lessons, and prepared Braille materials for me, had horses. She used to tell me about them, and I was really excited when she invited me to the farm where they were kept to have my first ride.

The first ride on Silke was a stroll down by the canal and back again, but after that, I was hooked. It seemed like a whole other world and there was so much to learn! I set about learning as much as I could, with an intensity that must have driven my poor grandparents crazy. When I couldn’t be with horses, then I was reading about them, thinking about them, and telling anyone who would listen what I had recently discovered!

After that, I visited Silke several times, and also rode one of the other horses there, Rhumba, who was bigger and thought that cantering through the fields by the canal was a lot of fun. So did I! When Silke had her first foal, I was allowed to meet him after a couple of days. All fluffy and still discovering what his spindly legs were for.

I enjoyed our visits, but they lived quite far away, so we needed to find something closer if this was going to become a hobby.

Making horse-riding accessible

We were lucky that the riding stables close to us was so welcoming and helpful. I think I took this for granted at the time, but having been to other stables now, I know I lucked out!

Sometimes I had lessons as part of a group, and sometimes I had private lessons. One of the most important things was that the trainer didn’t just let things go – if my hands or legs weren’t in the right position, she would physically show me what I should be doing. If I was sitting like a sack of potatoes, I was called out on it. I got the additional help that I needed because of my visual impairment, but I was expected to work as hard as everyone else.

One of my favourite things was jumping. It helped that the horse I usually rode loved to jump, but this was good experience for when I rode other horses who weren’t so keen on it. The instructor described the jump, told me if I needed to do anything to correct my approach to it, then gave me a few seconds warning before it was time to jump! I loved it!

We made a tactile arena on a big piece of cardboard and stuck Braille letters on so that I could learn their positions. (Braille is a tactile system which blind people use to read). Once I’d memorised where the letters were, I could understand instructions about where I needed to go. We had a couple of people around the arena who called out the letters as I approached them, so I knew when to turn. If there weren’t enough people, the trainer got a lot of exercise, getting to the letters before I did so that she would be in place to call them out! I understand now that people use more high-tech solutions such as Bluetooth headsets with someone giving visual information.

My assistant teacher also found a 2d wooden horse, and we mounted it on another piece of card, then labelled all the parts of the body with pieces of string that connected the Braille label to the corresponding part of the horse.

My grandparents never shared my love of horses, but Granddad took me to and from the stables every Saturday, and Nan read aloud my pony magazines, often slowly so that I could copy out information that I wanted for my Braille horse folder.

I know that at least one of the people whom I used to ride with has gone on to become an international dressage rider. I stopped riding when I was at High School – other interests got in the way. With hindsight I should have stayed with the horses, but you’re always smarter when you’re looking back.

Competing

As well as the weekly lessons, the riding school held its own yearly competitions in which you could enter for events such as dressage and jumping. We spent time grooming, plaiting manes, getting saddles ready and waiting for the big day. I was with the other sighted girls, so I didn’t feel different. Most of us didn’t have our own horses, so we were split up into pairs.

Everyone wanted to ride Bridget, the horse that I usually rode. She was so popular, partly because she seemed to enjoy what we did – especially jumping. But partly because she was a really kind horse with a lovely nature. She would put her head on your shoulder after you’d finished grooming her, and sometimes it felt as though the horses made more sense to me than the other people my age!

Anyway, I wasn’t one of the people in team Bridget, but I was assigned Sam, whom I hadn’t ridden before. He didn’t enjoy tearing around as much as I did, and I’m not sure he ever saw the point of hurtling over jumps when you could do the smart thing and walk round them, but you knew that he wouldn’t get flustered in an arena with so many people around, and he was one of the most reliable horses there. He got the job done – and in doing so we won one 1st, two third, and 2 clear round rosettes! I was proud of him and our picture was on my grandparents’ wall for ages!

I don’t remember it being horribly competitive. Yes, everyone wanted to win, but for me it was more about improving my own skills and becoming a better rider.

Trip to Berlin

The photo at the top of this post was taken when I went to visit my friend Sarah in Berlin. We were doing a kind of language exchange and had each planned fun activities for the other when she came to visit.

One of the things that we did in Germany was a ride through the countryside around Berlin. We met the horses, Maja and Marietta, and were escorted out by their owner for an evening ride. The things I remember most about that day were riding through a field of sunflowers – my favourite flower – and the fact that Maja liked to be in the lead! Ok, I also quite enjoyed being in the lead. The others described the path that we were going to take, where the turns were, and whether there were any low-hanging branches to avoid.

I was really glad I got to do this because so many stables are overcautious when it comes to working with disabled riders and it was great to go and explore on horseback without any unnecessary concerns – or the dreaded lead rein. Oh yes, and galloping was cool too!

Since then

I tried a couple of other riding schools as an adult, but never found one that I wanted to go to regularly. It’s true that you don’t realise what you have – until you don’t have it any more. I went on a couple of nice rides with a friend who lived locally, but I never started riding again every week.

As a young teenager I may have tired of my instructor complaining about my seat or leg positions, but she held me to a high standard, as she did with everyone else. I get the feeling that some other schools are so used to people who get a lot out of just being carried around on a horse, and that’s a great thing for some people, but setting the bar really low for all disabled riders is a sure way to demotivate people, especially those who are eager to learn and improve. If you’ve ridden before, the last thing you want is a lead rein, and the only way you can add more insult to injury is to give the lead rein to a 10-year-old child – yes, that did happen once. It didn’t make me want to go back!

Putting disabled riders in the same group can work if they are at a similar level, but not if what they want from the lesson or what they are able to achieve independently is vastly different.

Where I live now, I haven’t really looked around to see what’s available. I have different hobbies now. But I always look back fondly to the time when every Saturday morning was spent at the stables, grooming horses, cleaning saddles, carrying around buckets of food and water, playing games that involved teaching the stable dogs new tricks, and waiting for my lesson to come around.

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It’s Donkey Week – what can you do to help a donkey?

Today I’d like to talk about donkeys! 8th May 2018 is the beginning of Donkey Week, which is a series of events run in the UK by the Donkey Sanctuary.

The closest I got to meeting donkeys was on the Isle of Wight. I went there with some friends, but it was around Christmas time, and the sanctuary was closed to the public. As we stood by the fence outside, some of the donkeys came up to the other side and started braying. I wasn’t close enough to give them a pat, but it was as if they still wanted to say hello to us!

I’ve been following the Donkey Sanctuary on Facebook for a while and received their emails. The sanctuary is involved in helping donkeys all over the world, so as well as looking after abandoned or neglected donkeys here, they also work on shaping legislation in other countries. If you aren’t able to help financially, there are still ways in which you can help such as public awareness, sharing informatoin on social media, or signing petitions if you agree with them to show that the petition is supported by members of the public.

According to the site’s website, there are over 50 million donkeys around the world. In other parts of the world, some are treated as part of the family,helping to bring water and firewood, but in other areas, their life isn’t as good and they are not treated well. The sanctuary works to change laws to stop cruel or bad practices, address cases in which they are being neglected, and improve the life of the donkey worldwide. This includes monitoring what’s happening to donkeys around the world, particularly when they are working in dangerous places such as brick kilns and building sites.
Donkey week gives people the chance to meet the Donkey Sanctuary donkeys, go on wildlife walks, attend talks, hang out witt, or groom the donkeys. Accommodation is provided by a range of hotels and guest houses that are part of the Donkey Week scheme, and 10% of your accommodation costs go back to the sanctuary and therefore to looking after the donkeys.

I’m not actually able to go to any of the events this time, but I did adopt Coco the retired donkey! There is also Bonnie, the inquisitiv donkey who likes to try and get a second turn at being groomed, Cisco the organiser donkey, who makes sure all his stable mates are doing what they should, Henry the visually impaired donkey, who is getting used to getting around relying on his ears, and Ripple, who puts his head on your shoulder to show affection. There arre also many others, so do check them out if you want to meet the rest of the donkey family!

If you go to the adopt a donkey part of the website, you will find pictures of all of the donkeys and some information about each donkey.

Sponsoring a donkey costs £36, or £3 a month. You can receive a welcome pack with pictures and postcards, or you can choose not to receive the pack so that there is no cost for it and the total amount goes to the donkeys. I wouldn’t be able to see the pictures, so I ticked the box to say that I didn’t need a pack.Coco is at the sanctuary in Devon, so if we ever make it down there, I might be able to meet him!

Have you ever been to a donkey sanctuary? Will you be doing anything for Donkey Week this year? Let me know in the comments!

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Blogmas day 21 – how much do you know about reindeer?

When I was a child, I used to insist that we left something out for Rudolph and the other reindeer, not just Father Christmas. I thought they would rather like dog biscuits, so they got some of Cindy’s shapes! (It was just a coincidence that my guide dog shared the name with the dog with whom I grew up!) The shapes were always gone in the morning, so reindeer must like dog biscuits, right? Much more interesting than a plain old carrot?!

I didn’t know much about reindeer then!

A few days ago, I came across a blog post with 12 facts about reindeer. I’ve used it a couple of times in my lessons, and I thought I’d share it with you too!

I hope you enjoy it and learn something about Santa’s friends!

Do your children, or did you as a child leave food out for the reindeer?

The calendars

IN L’Occitane there was a Verbena handcream. It seems a bit more lightweight than the others, but I love that lemony scent!

In M&S there was something that will be passed on to Mother Christmas – a face oil! I don’t use them, but 19 hits and 2 misses so far is not at all bad for a calendar!

How about you?

Christmas tree in Stockholm

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Blogmas day 4 – 12 days of Christmas for dog lovers

A new take on the well-known Christmas song and some ideas for what to buy your dog for Christmas.

Well, the tree is up and it’s beginning to look a lot more festive around here! Getting the singing snowman out made me think about Cindy, my golden retriever who is no longer with us. She didn’t like the singing snowman. I don’t think she understood why it moved and where the voice came from!

She was very much a part of Christmas and I thought I’d do a Blogmas post for our furry friends.

So, to the tune of that other well-known Christmas song:

On the 12th day of Christmas my doggy shared with me
12 wintry walks
11 bonios
10 bags of dogfood
9 canine cuddles
8 furry playmates
7 packs of poo bags
6 tongues a-licking
5 squeaky toys
4 muddy paws
3 dog leads
2 floppy ears
And a waggy tail to show she’s happy!

Here are some ideas if you’re looking for inspiration to treat your furry friend at Christmas.

First of all – dog treats! Some people make their own, but there are plenty of festive treats out there – either normal ones, or special ones for Christmas. The most important thing is to make sure it’s a treat suitable for dogs. Last year my Mum’s dog got these mince pies for dogs and this year I’m getting her some pigs in blankets. Mum, if you’re reading this, don’t tell M!

If you want to give your dog a stocking, why not make one yourself with some of the things that you know he or she loves?

If you don’t want to get treats, you could get a toy. There are all kinds available, from indestructible frame balls for super chewers to a squeaky reindeer. You know what kind of toys your dog likes. I could buy Cindy anything because she was gentle with her toys, but if your dog is a chewer, it’s better to get something more durable.

Cindy tolerated the reindeer antlers for the photos, but she wasn’t a fan, so I didn’t ask her to wear them for long. If you want your dog to look festive, you could get something like this reindeer collar or a personalised Santa’s little helper bandanna!

Maybe it’s a good opportunity to get something practical. When Cindy was getting older, I got her a bed with memory foam to give her better joint support. There are beds to suit all price ranges and sizes – here’s an example.

Also, as she was getting older, I got her a waterproof winter coat to keep out the cold and damp

Another thing you could do is pay for an activity that you can do together. What kind of things does your dog enjoy doing? Is there a skill that he/she could learn, or a class that you could do together?

Most of all, dogs don’t see gifts in the same way as us, so if you really want to do something good for him or her, take some time out of your busy schedule and go for a walk or have some sofa time with your dog. It’s easy to get carried away with all the preparations and often the best thing you can give is your time.

The other thing is not to let your dog have anything that would hurt him or her. There is so much food around at Christmas time, and some things like grapes, raisins, chocolate and alcohol are bad for dogs. Don’t let your friend spend the festive season feeling sick because they had access to human treats!

What will your dog be getting this Christmas?

Christmas tree in Stockholm

The calendars

So, what was behind door 4 of your advent calendar if you had one today?

L’Occitane: I got a mini of the verbena body lotion, which is great because I like the bath soak from the same range. I’ve never tried a body lotion from this range, so I’m looking forward to that.

M&S: Gatineau Melatogenine Advanced Rejuvenating Cream. I was happy to see another skincare item. It said you can use it morning and night, but it’s quite a rich cream, so I think this will be my new night cream!

Question for the day

So today I’d like to know – do pets join in with your Christmas celebrations? Will they be getting a gift? If so, what is it?

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How you can help dogs and other animals around bonfire night

Firework litter

I had the idea for this post because of something that happened to me over 10 years ago.

I’d taken my dog Cindy the golden retriever to visit some friends in Somerset. We went for a walk together with their Labrador and we were having a good day. The dogs were chasing around and having fun, when suddenly Cindy picked up something that looked like a stick. She didn’t tend to scavenge on walks, but she was a retriever, and she liked to be carrying something in her snout.

We realised that the thing was not a stick but the remains of a firework. I told her to leave it, which she did, but the damage had already been done. There were still chemical traces on the piece of wood, and they burned her throat, making it hard for her to breathe.

Luckily my friends had a car (if this had happened at home I would have been in bigger trouble because I don’t drive), and we rushed her to the emergency vet, who treated her and gave her something for the pain.

In the end, everything was ok, but since then I can’t help thinking about all those bits of fireworks that come floating down to earth each 5th November. Nobody knows where they will land, and it would be easy for an animal to pick them up, especially if it’s an inquisitive dog.

So if you see things like this when you’re out walking, especially around or after 5th November, please pick them up and get rid of them safely, taking them out of harm’s way.

Hedgehogs

I follow a couple of nature pages on Facebook, and they always make the point about hedgehogs hiding in unlit bonfires, which provide a warm and safe place to hide away. If you build a bonfire a couple of days before you light it, please check inside first to make sure that no small creatures such as hedgehogs are hiding in there.

If your dog is scared

Fireworks can be scary for dogs because they don’t understand where the loud noise is coming from.

Cindy never paid them any attention, but I know people whose dogs get really stressed out at this time of year. Each dog is different, but here are some things that you can try:

  1. It’s hard because the fireworks can be let off any time in the weeks leading up to bonfire night, but try not to leave your dog on its own if you know it’s going to be frightened. If you know you’re going out, could the dog spend the evening with a friend?
  2. The dog will take its lead from you, so don’t give him/her the impression that it’s something to be stressed out about. Try to act normally as though nothing out of the ordinary is happening and your not being bothered might help to reassure your dog doo. If the dog thinks you’re worried, it communicates the message that there’s something to be worried about.
  3. However that doesn’t mean that you should ignore your dog if it’s looking for comfort from you. Show them some love and try to help focus their attention on something else.
  4. Put some music on – then the bangs aren’t as loud as they would be in a completely silent house.
  5. Sometimes if a dog is frightened, its first instinct is to run away. If you need to open the door, try to put another closed door between the dog and the front door so it can’t dash past you into the street and run away. Also make sure that your dog is microchipped as this is not only a legal requirement, but it will make it much easier for you to get them back if they do make a dash for it.
  6. If the dog doesn’t like the flashes of light, draw the curtains.
  7. You can try playing Youtube videos of fireworks if you think it would help your dog get used to the noises so it’s not such a big shock when the real fireworks start. This is good for helping puppies to discover that the noises are no cause for concern, but if the dog is already afraid of the sound, this might just make it worse.
  8. Make a safe place that your dog can retreat to if he/she feels scared. Sometimes dogs like to go under things such as tables because it makes them feel safe. You could also make sure their favourite toy is there, or something which smells of you and is familiar.
  9. You can reward calm behaviour with games or treats.
  10. If you think your dog will be anxious, try to feed and take them out before the fireworks start, as an anxious dog might not want to eat or go outside.
  11. Barking and whining are not the only signs of stress. Yawning and panting can also indicate that the dog doesn’t feel good, so don’t take your dog to a fireworks display if you think it will upset them. Seeing the cause of the noise doesn’t always make it better. If you’re at a display, you’re not in a controlled environment and there is nowhere to run.
  12. Going for a nice, long walk in the daytime can burn off excess energy, helping your dog to feel calmer when it comes to the evening
  13. In some cases, vets can provide some kind of sedative, or advise on homeopathic remedies, but I haven’t included further details here because that’s a discussion to have with individual vets.
  14. Some dogs find comfort in chewing, so this might be a good time for a safe chew to focus on. Other dogs might prefer to use their brains to get treats out of a puzzle toy.
  15. If your dog needs to go outside during the fireworks, going with them can help give support, so they can focus on you and not the scary noises outside.

Do you have any other tips to add? If so, please leave them in the comments.

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Holly’s story – from a puppy farm to a loving home

You can help dogs like holly by not contributing to the demand for puppy farm puppies.

From a puppy farm to a new forever home
You can help dogs like holly by not contributing to the demand for puppy farm puppies.

Something a bit different today, but anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know that dogs are close to my heart!

Meet my friend Holly! She’s an eight-year-old yellow Labrador and she lives with my partner’s grandparents.

I met her nearly two years ago one evening after work. S had suggested going to visit his grandparents. It was a bit unusual going after work, but it would be good to see them, and of course they had the dogs – a greyhound and a saluki, who had both come through a rescue organisation.

When we got there, I was ushered into the front room where, dozing on a duvet, was the newest addition to the family – Holly.

S’s grandma had seen Holly on a dog rehoming website and she knew immediately that she wanted to help.

Holly had been living on a farm in Ireland, where she was being used for breeding. In her six short years, she had already had several litters of puppies, and she was unlikely to have had a break between each litter. Her teats were swollen, she was terribly overweight, and she didn’t seem to understand the concept of going for a walk. This combined with the worn patches on her elbows suggested that she had spent a lot of time just lying on a hard floor throughout the cycle of mating, pregnancy, and giving birth to puppies. The puppies would be sold and then the cycle would start again. This is no life for a smart, young Labrador.

Fortunately for her, Holly was rescued from this life of puppy production and she was brought to her new forever home around two years ago. She now goes out for regular walks with the boys (Perry the Saluki and Gwyn the greyhound). She can’t run as fast as them, but she has lost several kilos already which makes it easier for her to move around. Like all Labradors, she loves her food, but her new diet is helping to bring her weight down to where it should be, and of course going for walks helps with that too.

Holly is a typical Labrador in that she likes to be patted. She is very calm, and I often sit on the floor stroking her when we go round to visit. She has perked up a lot in the time I’ve known her, and although people haven’t always treated her well, she likes people. When I first met her, she had her lovely, kind nature, but she seemed so tired. Not the kind of tiredness that goes when you’ve had a good night’s sleep, but weary because life had been tough for her, and somehow lacking enthusiasm.

Now she often trots out behind the boys to greet us at the door, and there’s nothing like a tasty treat to awaken Labrador enthusiasm!

Her legs aren’t strong enough to allow her to jump up into the car like the others, but she has learned how to use the ramp.

I’m so glad that she now has a life with a soft bed, the chance to have a good diet, people to give her hugs, and interesting places to explore.

Some months later, Holly was spayed, so there’s no risk that she will have to go through another pregnancy. She’s had enough of that to last a lifetime!

There are plenty of good reasons not to buy from a puppy farm (also known as puppy mills in the US). These are essentially irresponsible breeders who run factories for producing puppies with little concern for the puppies or the mothers. The dogs are often not well-cared for, there is little or no medical history, basic medical care and immunisations are not given, there is insufficient information about the parents (including any hereditary health problems), and the dogs are often taken away from their mother too early, which is bad for their social development. If you get a dog from somewhere like this, you could end up with a sick puppy, or one with behavioural issues. Temperament can be inherited, so if you’re not allowed to see the parents, or the mother has behavioural issues that go beyond the normal protectiveness towards her puppies, the puppies could have issues too.

Some people go to puppy farms because they don’t like the fact that good breeders and animal rescue organisations will want to vet potential new homes first, but if it were your puppy, wouldn’t you want to make sure that it was going to a good home?

I can understand why people who genuinely want to help would buy a puppy from a place like this and give it a better start in life, but even if you do help that one puppy, it’s contributing to the wider problem. As long as people think there is money to be made in this way, and as long as there is a demand for puppies, people will try to meet that demand. This means they need dogs like Holly to be mothers – again and again and again. In the UK, it’s illegal to breed from a bitch more than six times in her lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t do it.

So if you really want to help dogs like Holly, it would be better to go to a rescue organisation, or if not, a registered and responsible breeder, than to support the puppy farm trade.

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