SWINTON Park has welcomed a brand new resident to the landmark estate.
Lila the barn owl is, at seven-weeks-old, the estate’s youngest resident.
She is currently being hand-reared by Sophie Abbott, 21, who runs Swinton Park Birds of Prey at her home on the estate.
And the young bird is proving quite a handful.
Sophie said: “It’s just like having a puppy with wings. She can do all the naughty things that a puppy gets up to, but from a height.
“I can turn round and find she’s on top of a bookcase or a lampshade.”
Lila came to Sophie from a private breeder in Newcastle three weeks ago.
The young owl had to be separated from her parents after her father starting trying to eat Lila and her brother and sister.
“This kind of thing, when adults attack their young, isn’t that common but birds of prey aren’t the best parents,” Sophie said.
For the moment, Lila is living with Sophie and her family – her father, Swinton Park’s gamekeeper; her mother who works in the hotel’s kitchen gardens, and her brother and sister, Hayley, nine, and Charlie, six.
Sophie set up the bird of prey centre at only 17-years-old after developing a passion for the birds at the age of 12 and still runs it single-handedly with support from her family and the estate.
“When I was 12 I loved Harry Potter and I really wanted an owl. My mum said I had to learn how to look after one first, so I started volunteering at Thorp Perrow Bird of Prey centre to learn about them.
“Then in 2007 I went to Lord and Lady Masham and asked if they would like birds of prey on the estate.
“They thought the birds would fit in really well with the hotel and were very enthusiastic.”
With the estate’s support Sophie has transformed the ruined orangery behind the hotel into an aviary, home to 10 of her collection with another 15 in sheds around her home.
Her family have got behind her enterprises, but her mother did draw the line at the birds’ food filling the family’s freezer.
“I used to use the freezer at home, till my mum got a bit mad. Now I have filled two big chest freezers and one smaller one.
“Lila eats raw meat, like mice, rats and chickens, but the estate is very closeknit so if anyone is doing pest control they will bring things to me to feed the birds rather than waste it. I get pigeons, jackdaws, all sorts.”
Her friends are equally supportive of her unique choice of career.
“When I first got interested and was at Thorp Perrow every weekend and all through the school holidays my friends hated it because they never saw me,” Sophie said.
“Now they think it’s great that I am doing something of my own, so long as I don’t start cutting up dead animals for the birds in front of them.”