On a wing and a prayer

STAFF at the UK s largest bird of prey centre are working for nothing because of a cash crisis. Now the owner of The English School of Falconry and Bird of Prey Centre at Old Warden is warning it could face closure unless visitor numbers improve this year

STAFF at the UK's largest bird of prey centre are working for nothing because of a cash crisis.

Now the owner of The English School of Falconry and Bird of Prey Centre at Old Warden is warning it could face closure unless visitor numbers improve this year.

Phil Gooden has amassed a unique collection of over 200 birds of prey at his centre at the rear of Shuttleworth College in the past eight years.

Mr Gooden, 61, who manages the centre with his daughter Emma, 29, says things are the worst he has ever known and neither he, nor his daughter, currently take a penny from the business.

Last week he laid off all four members of his staff but the following day they were all back at work saying they couldn't leave Mr Gooden and his daughter to manage the birds alone.

The trouble, says Mr Gooden, stems from last year's wet summer when visitors were the lowest ever at the centre. The knock-on effect was a soaring overdraft which has now culminated in the drastic measure of axing wages.

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"Without these youngsters coming back and helping we would struggle," said Mr Gooden.

"Last summer was a disaster because of the rain. Once it started it never stopped and things went from bad to worse over the months.

"On one Sunday in mid summer when we might have been packed we only had four visitors all day.

"We just can't go on for ever. The drain on our finances has been unbelievable.

"I have dedicated my life to building this centre and I will work as hard as I can so we don't have to close.

"But banks are not charities and unless people start coming through the gate then things will just get worse.

"Another wet summer and we may not survive. But the staff I laid off and who came back to work for nothing have been fantastic."

Two of the volunteers are Sarah Hesford, 24, an artist in her spare time at her home in Gamlingay, and Sean Fish, 21.

"I couldn't leave Phil and Emma alone," said Sarah.

"I love working with the birds. It is a passion and I love doing it every day. I will have to survive on my sculpting and other work but I will always turn up here every day and work for nothing."

Sean said: "I have always loved working here and couldn't walk away. We now all work together as a team to hopefully make sure the centre survives."

In an attempt to bring in some much-needed revenue the centre will be the venue for the Bedfordshire Festival of Food on April 5 and 6 between 10am and 5pm.

For more information about the event and the opening of the centre for its new season over the half-term holiday call the centre on 01767 627527.

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