How birds of prey are helping Irish tourism businesses to take flight
Birds of prey and falconry experiences have seen a whole new tourism niche take flight, says Pól Ó Conghaile.
Have you ever seen an eagle in full flight?
I think it's a breathtaking sight, similar to a lion on safari, or a manta ray in the ocean. And thanks to reintroduction programmes, it's a sight that can be enjoyed in Ireland once again, from golden eagles in Donegal to white-tailed sea eagles in Kerry and Lough Derg... with tangible tourism boosts.
You don't have to get lucky in the wild to see a bird of prey, though. My family joined a falconry experience with Jurgen Hick (munsterfalconryservices.ie) at Galway's Glenlo Abbey Hotel recently, and loved it.
We got to hold owls and hawks (with leather gloves, of course), and even stroke them. Jurgen was like a bird whisperer, gently talking to the birds as he told us about their extraordinary hearing, sight and hunting abilities.
Did you know peregrine falcons can dive at over 200mph? That owls can turn their heads 270-degrees? We met a 110g tropical screech owl called Tiny, and took a walk around the hotel estate with a Harris's hawk called Ben, watching him fly off and take a perch, before zooming back to pluck chunks of chicks from our gloves.
More and more birds of prey experiences are cropping up around Ireland - from Aillwee Cave (aillweecave.ie) in the Burren and Eagles Flying (eaglesflying.com) in Co Sligo, to resort-based hawk walks and educational experiences like those at Glenlo Abbey (see below) and Ashford Castle (falconry.ie).
They're not cheap, but they are an intimate, and exhilarating, close encounter that curious kids and adults alike will cherish.
Glenlo Abbey's falconry encounters cost €75pp. The best value comes when you book as part of a package, however - a 'Fantastic Falconry' deal bundles two nights in one of the hotel's newly-refurbished rooms, a four-course dinner in the River Room Restaurant, and a 1.5-hour falconry session with Jurgen from €294pp (falconry must be pre-booked). An 'Olympic' package includes the above, with falconry just one activity option, along with dinner in the restored Pullman Restaurant (above), from €349pp. See glenloabbeyhotel.ie for more.
Eagles have landed
Think of tourism in Co Clare, and it's typically the Burren and Cliffs of Moher that come to mind. West Clare, in other words. Caimin and Saoirse could change that, however. This pair of white-tailed sea eagles, who made history when they reared the first chicks of their kind to fly from an Irish nest in 100 years, have brought thousands of tourists to Mountshannon, where a viewpoint features telescopes, information and displays. The birds' nest is on Lough Derg's Holy Island - not a bad place to lay down roots. See mountshannoneagles.ie.