How Harewood House is marking 50 years of bird conservation

It may have had to postpone its reopening, but Harewood House is now encouraging visitors to get back to virtual nature to mark 50 years of conservation work. Sarah Freeman reports.

Bird keeper Peter Stubbs with visitor favourites the penguins at Harewood House.
Bird keeper Peter Stubbs with visitor favourites the penguins at Harewood House.

Mention Harewood House is home to a zoo and even regular visitors to the stately home will look a little blank. They’ve explored every corner of the grand 18th century pile, they’ve soaked up the Robert Adam-designed interiors and they can wax lyrical about how the Terrace Gallery has become one of the North’s leading showcases for contemporary art.

The zoo, however, is less well-known even though they’ve probably walked through it a dozen times or more.

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“The Harewood Bird Garden is a licensed zoo and has been ever since it opened in 1970,” says Nick Dowling, the estate’s bird garden and farm experience manager. “It’s home to more than 40 different species of birds and we run some world-leading conservation programmes here. However, I think over recent years we have forgotten to shout about what we do.”

Bird keeper Lisa Bath with a hand reared pair of birds.

In the next 12 months all that is set to change. Before anyone had heard of social distancing and self-isolation, the team at Harewood had planned a year-long programme of events to celebrate the bird garden’s 50th anniversary.

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“I became interested in birds because my uncle was,” he says. “He used to send me tape recordings of him telling stories about different species. I am aware that shows my age, but when we began thinking about how we can engage with people during these unprecedented times I thought maybe we could do something similar.”

Having recently updated the signage around the bird garden, Nick is also launching a new bird inspired podcast, which if the success of Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day slot on the Today programme is anything to go by, should prove a big hit.

Flamingos at Harewood House.

“There are so many fabulous stories to tell about this place, from the work we do supporting the conservation of love birds in Zambia to our own breeding programmes,” he says. “It’s also about introducing people who may not have been to Harewood before to birds like the palm cockatoos.

“These fabulous birds have the biggest bills of any parrot, in captivity they can live up to 90 years and their trademark ‘hellow’ call is surprisingly human-like. Then there’s our Chilean flamingos, some of whom are Harewood veterans having been in residence since the bird garden opened.”

As part of the estate’s efforts to better promote the attraction, later in the year it also hopes to open a new walk through aviary where visitors will be able to get up close and personal with a flock of zebra finches.

“There is something really uplifting about being surrounded by nature and the sound of birds,” adds Nick. “When the current restrictions have been lifted, never will we have needed that more.”

The anniversary will also be a chance to look back on the team’s many achievements. When the bird garden opened, Harewood became the first country house in England to boast its own penguins and it was hailed in the press as ‘one of England’s most comprehensive collections of rare and exotic birds from all parts of the world’.

“The bird garden was originally opened by the Seventh Earl and the Countess of Harewood, to provide a new attraction for visitors and celebrate their passion for wildlife and the protection of endangered species,” says Jane Marriott, director of the Harewood House Trust.

“At the time they were advised by Sir Peter Scott, the conservationist and founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trusts and also by Len Hill, celebrated ornithologist and founder of Birdland Park and Gardens.

“It once housed 500 birds from 140 different species, including native Australian birds from the Countess’s home country, in addition to significant collections of birds from the Himalayas and South America.

“Today, that has been slimmed down a little to around 300 birds, but the original focus on managed international breeding and conservation programmes continues.”

All the research, whether it is focused on Harewood’s Chilean flamingos or its Humboldt penguins, is about improving the husbandry and welfare of the animals and raising awareness of how we can all do our bit to prevent critically endangered species from becoming extinct.

“It’s about making sure that you buy fish which has been approved as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council,” adds Nick. “It’s about taking steps to become carbon neutral to limit climate change by installing a smart meter and it’s about not encouraging deforestation through ensuring all timber products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

“Together we can make a real difference and hopefully that’s what the bird garden shows. Take our Vietnam pheasants. These birds were only discovered relatively recently, in 1964, and are thought to be the rarest breed of pheasant in captivity.

"Listed as an endangered species, their population numbers are in continuous decline owing to the rapid destruction of their habitat and very high levels of hunting, but through the work we do here we are doing all we can to ensure they have a future.”

As Boris Johnson was delivering the second of his now daily briefings, the team at Harewood was putting the finishing touches to a landmark art exhibition. Made from discarded bird feathers Kate MccGwire’s sculptures look as though they might at any minute take flight and a new commission was to be the centrepiece of the display.

For now, the house is off-limits, but it is hoped the exhibition will open later in the year and the ever optimistic team at Harewood are viewing it as delayed gratification.

Until then, from Monday they will be launching a series of interactive features focusing on individual treasures within the house and the estate’s head gardener will also be giving their tips for how to turn an ordinary outside spot into an oasis of colour.

“The bird garden is one of Harewood’s real treasures,” adds Jane. “With this year marking its landmark anniversary, it now feels like a good time to wake up our own sleeping beauty.”

For updates of when the house and grounds will reopen go to harewood.org