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Posted Sunday, July 1, 2007
Harry Potter & The Honeybank Owls:
`the most famous schoolboy hero ever'
He is the most famous schoolboy hero ever, his name is on everyones lips; his face is everywhere. - and it is almost impossible to escape from the myopic stare of the child wizard - Harry Potter.
As Pottermania sweeps the country heralding the advent of the biggest box-office smash in the entire history of cinema, the release of the Warner Brothers film adaption of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone” has had journalists and television crews flocking to a Derbyshire farm.
`The Owl Man'
`Honeybank’ at Holestone Gate Road, Ashover, is the home of the National Hawking School. It is also the home of the School’s multi-talented Director, t.v. animal expert, author, broadcaster, and former full-time Chief Executive of the National Federation of Zoos, James McKay, a.k.a. `The Owl Man’.
James’ expert talents are such that he has provided bed, bread and board to film stars at his Ashover home – and has trained and coached them in readyness for their film debuts in a smash-hit movie.
The film stars in question are owls, and the film of course, is `Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone’. In the film the owls are responsible for delivering the `Owl Post’, and were recruited by Warner Brothers from James Mckay’s National Hawking School at Ashover.
Sheffield-born James is no stranger to either television crews or journalists, having appeared many times as the resident animal expert on television, and being himself a former magazine editor and the author of thirty four published booksand booklets. He is also a College Lecturer specialising in the subject to which his working life is dedicated – and of which he is an acknowledged expert – the Training, Care & Welfare of Animals.
It was in August last year during an owl display in Portsmouth along with ten-year-old son Tom, that James took a call on his mobile ‘phone from someone who purported to represent Warner Brothers, asking if he could supply a couple of owls for the Harry Potter film that they were making.
James thought it was a hoax:
“Initially I thought it was a wind-up, someone pulling my leg”, he explained; “so I went along with it and said I’d think about it, and they gave me a contact number. But I still thought it was a joke until Tom, who is a dedicated Harry Potter fan said, “Just think Dad, if it is genuine, our owls could be in the Harry Potter movie”.
James continued: “Tom insisted, so a couple of hours later I rang the contact number I’d been given and a voice at the other end said “Hello, Warner Brothers”... and the rest is history”.
Father and son were pictured recently when local television news programmes showed them flying the owls at Honeybank, and when interviewed, young Tom who is a pupil at nearby St.Anselm’s School Bakewell, agreed with some enthusiasm that `Pottermania’ had gripped the entire school, but admitted that it was becoming a bit tedious constantly being asked `is it true that your owl is in the Harry Potter film?”.
His father revealed that the two owls which were sent to Warner Brothers for the making of the Harry Potter movies are family pets `Pepper’, a Barn Owl belonging to son Tom, and a Tawny Owl called `Bruce’ which is his own.
So how did the `Owl Man’ earn such a reputation that his knowledge and expertise eventually came to the attention of Warner Brothers?
“Well, it’s a long story” said James. “I’ve always been interested in animals. As a young schoolboy I was fascinated by them and used to bring all sorts home”. “In fact, he recalled fondly, “my parents used to frisk me before they’d let me into the house”.
He has kept most kinds of animals and has been known variously as the `Animal Man’, `Hawk Man’ and `Owl Man’ since his early days as a features journalist with Sheffield’s Radio Hallam where he presented a weekly programme called `Creature Comforts’.
James made the transition from local radio to Yorkshire Television’s `It’s A Vet’s Life’ during the early 1980’s and for five years he was the resident `animal expert’ in the Yorkshire Region. From 1987 to 1991 James was the regular animal expert featuring on T.V.am with the children’s programme, the `Wide Awake Club’ – and in-between, this dedicated animal loving workaholic found time to become Chief Executive of the National Federation of Zoos and was based in an office in the middle of London Zoo!
His first book, `The Ferret & Ferreting Handbook’ was published in 1989, the latest being specialist `Vet Clinic’ books on both dogs and cats.
James has contributed hundreds of magazine features and is a former editor of `Shooting & Conservation’ magazine, where he was also head of Public Relations & Marketing. His vast knowledge and experience benefits pupils at Broomfield College where he is a tutor in Animal Care, and James admits that the focus of his desire to teach is his passion for nature conservation, animal welfare, and specifically the education of children.
James and his family have been at Honeybank since 1996. He told me, “ My wife Jane is a local, and one day about five years ago she was on her way to her parents in Matlock when she spotted a `For Sale’ sign at Honeybank Farm”. It turned out to be the ideal property and perfectly suited premises for the National Hawking School and Owl Sanctuary and so the McKay’s bought it.
“I’ve travelled a lot and lived in many different places but Honeybank is a very special place” said James, adding, “This place feels more like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived”.
The two owls used in the Harry Potter movie are just two of the many owls, hawks, buzzards and falcons kept at Honeybank where James not only breeds, trains and supplies them for specialist clients, but also runs a wide range of courses. These include a half-day `Owl Encounter’ educational course where you can find out about all types of owls from around the world – and get closer to them than you ever thought possible. From the gigantic Eurasian eagle owl, the largest owl in the world with a two metre wing-span, to the diminutive barn owl, there’s plenty of `hands on’ experience, and even the opportunity to have owls fly to you and land on your fist – and to have the `magic moment’ captured forever in a souvineer photograph. Sounds like a perfect gift for Harry Potter fans!
James’ future plans - apart from providing owls for more Harry Potter movies – include breeding owls for release into the wild, and establishing a Raptor Rescue Hospital at Honeybank. In fact, along with the `Owl Post’ and the Harry Potter series of films it would seem, for James McKay and the Honeybank Owls - that the sky’s the limit!