British School of Falconry - Past and Present

MANCHESTER - After nearly two decades of operating out of Hildene, the British School of Falconry closed last November. The school, which was used almost exclusively by the Equinox Resort and Spa, was eventually closed after other options to house the birds were deemed not financially viable.

The birds - which included 14 Harris Hawks, two eagles and a falcon - had been housed in the barn at Hildene's grounds along River Road ever since the school's inception 18 years ago. A new home had to be found for the birds due to Hildene's plan to use the property the barn sits on as part of new farm.

"We began talking to the falconry school six years ago, at least six years ago, letting them know that the time was going to come when we needed the barn and the property back as we converted to agriculture," said Executive Director of Hildene Seth Bongartz. "So, the one thing we could do on our end was give them a lot of notice, which we did."

The last contract signed between the school and Hildene - which was for a duration of three years - was specific that the contract was the final one between the two entities, Bongartz said.

According to the General Manager of the Equinox, Mark O'Neil, the Equinox looked at about a dozen potential new locations over a span of about three years.

"We looked at buying land. We looked at leasing land. We looked at [Equinox Valley] Nursery to put a barn up there," said O'Neil. "We had probably 10 iterations of different things and locations that we tried to put [into place] that would work for us and more importantly work for the birds." It was ultimately determined though that in order for the school to continue a new barn would have to be built - an expenditure ranging from $400,000 to $750,000.

"The hotel tenure on the barn from Hildene coincided with some new falconry regulations, which stipulated the housing requirements and the new housing requirements for hawks," said Emma Ford who founded the school along with her husband Steve Ford. "Although the resort has done everything they could to help us, unfortunately HEI, which [owns] the Equinox, decided it was (not) financially viable to move us."

Despite the new regulations, Ford said that a structure would not have been drastically different from the barn at Hildene because the school's permit would have been grandfathered in and the chamber sizes for the birds would not have had to have been changed much.

Since the closure of the school, the birds - as well as the two dogs taken out when the birds were hunted - have been divided between the former manager Robert Waite and senior instructor Dawn Decrease, according to Ford. The falconry school was one of only three in the nation and the only one in New England and Ford said that she believed it had an allure that helped draw people to Manchester.

"I think it was significant," said Ford. "When it started it was unique in the United States. Since then there have been a tiny handful of other schools in the U.S. and I think it certainly, I think, helped to put Manchester on the map for reasons other than the outlet shopping."

Ford continued to say that in their time at the school several people had told them that their reason for coming to the Equinox was to go through the school. In addition, Ford also said that 50,000 people went through the school over the years and that they generated $5,281,000 in public relations value.

"If you have press you can get it valued by an agency called Burrells," said Ford. "They will value the editorial pieces that you had to say what the worth is and the worth that they came up with for our falconry and archery school press was $5,281,000." The archery program at the Equinox has also been discontinued, Ford said.

O'Neil said that the resort was "absolutely devastated" by the loss of the falconry school and that he is working to bring it back in some capacity. "We are doing everything we can to bring it back even if it's in a modified format," said O'Neil. "We're hoping to find some land and get somebody who used to work for the British School of Falconry who could still offer it and we're real close. It was just such an integral part to the community and to the Village and to the resort that we're doing everything in our power to get it up and running even if it's on a smaller scale."

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