The Raptor Foundation and 56 (Reserve) Squadron

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Early in 2010, 56(R) Squadron decided to carry on the long established military tradition of having a squadron mascot.

The Squadron crest is a Phoenix which has led to the nickname of:

‘The Firebirds’

So it was decided the most appropriate mascot would be a bird of prey. At the time there was a strong sense across the Squadron that it must be an impressive powerful bird of prey that captured the spirit of the Squadron. It would also have to be a bird that would be at ease on parade, at Squadron charity events and finally it needed to be a bird that would tolerate being held by people with minimum falconry skills and experience. The challenge was where to find such a bird!

The Raptor Foundation is located in Woodbridge, Cambridgeshire and this seemed like the perfect way to both find our mascot, but also allow the Squadron to support a worthwhile charity. The Raptor Foundation is a charity set up to provide medical care for injured raptors (birds of prey) and where possible return rehabilitated birds back into the wild. For birds unable to get back to full health the Foundation helps to provide a sanctuary for the birds to have a protected life. 56(R) Squadron began our association with the Raptor Foundation offering support both financially and by providing volunteers to help with the general day to day work at the Foundation. The Foundation’s mission statement is;

“firstly to rescue, rehabilitate and return injured birds of prey back to the wild and secondly to protect and preserve them through education and conservation”.

It was decided that this sentiment captured what we were looking to achieve through our mascot. The Foundation is open to the public all year round and puts on two flying displays a day. It also runs a variety of educational and experience days at the Foundation, to raise awareness of the problems raptors face in their natural habitats. The Foundation also visit schools and youth group such as Cubs, Scouts, Brownies and Guides, providing displays and talks about conservation of raptors. This serves to educate the general public about all aspects of wild raptors, highlighting the commitment and demands of keeping a bird of prey in captivity as a pet.

The Foundation has had a long association with the RAF. For many years 8 Squadron had two European eagle owls as mascots, which lived in an aviary at the back of the Squadron building at RAF Waddington; however, with changes in personnel and the increasing demand of operations, it was eventually decided the eagle owls would be better living back at the Foundation. I first became aware of the Foundation and its work during a tour on 23 Squadron, when I became involved with the Squadron mascot Captain Scarlet, a Bateleur eagle. When looking for a 56(R) Squadron mascot it seemed logical to approach the Foundation and adopt one of their birds.

When it came to choosing a mascot for 56(R) Squadron there were several candidates; the Foundation has over 200 birds of prey spanning more than 40 species. When we first approached the Foundation, the Chief Executive Officer and primary falconer helped us to narrow the list of birds to just one, the red tailed hawk. The red tailed hawk is one of the most popular birds with falconers because of its good character, ease of training for hunting and prowess flying to the glove. It is a stunning bird with dark brown wings and back, lightly mottled chest and with a striking bright reddish-brown tail. The Foundation had 3 red tailed hawks when we were looking; there was a male and two females. As with the vast majority of raptors, the females are up to 25% larger than the males, so for the Squadron it had to be a female. It was a difficult decision between the two females, Reds and Troy. Both are beautiful birds, both travelled well, but in the end Troy was chosen to become the Squadron mascot. Reds is actually a very feisty bird and takes issue from time to time about being handled by novices; in truth, entirely unsuitable for Squadron members to be handling. Therefore Troy had to be the one chosen; she is a far more forgiving bird with novices and inexperienced handlers and all in all a much more relaxed prospect for Squadron functions and events. In May 2010, 56(R) Squadron adopted Troy as their mascot.

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Troy lives at the Foundation and flies regularly in the displays, which keeps her fit and healthy. She also forms part of the hunting team and is very accomplished at catching rabbits. As I write this article Troy has begun another hunting season. One of the greatest challenges of keeping any bird in captivity is ensuring its health and quality of life. Hunting provides her with great freedom of flight and replicates how she would hunt in the wild. Birds of prey are very intelligent and one of the challenges of captivity is providing not only exercise but mental stimulation; hunting is just one way of mentally stimulating Troy and maintaining quality of life.

As the Squadron’s mascot, Troy has been present at various charity events organised by the Squadron which always increases interest and attendance at any event, but also raises awareness of the work the Raptor Foundation performs. When the Squadron received its new Standard in 2011, Troy was on parade with the Squadron, delighting both the Squadron members and visitors with her presence. In 2012, she formed part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Parade at North Weald, where 56(R) Squadron were based during the Battle of Britain; Troy’s presence added a certain air of majesty to the ceremony. At the annual Squadron Association Dinner past members now all ask about Troy and are keen to know the next Squadron event she will be present at. She has provided a real sense of pride and identity for the Squadron, which after all is what a mascot should do. As the Squadron’s Falconer, it has been a great privilege to be trusted with Troy on such occasions.

To endorse the Squadron’s support for the Foundation’s work, once or twice a month individuals from the Squadron visit the Foundation. They provide help with the daily activities involved in the upkeep and day to day running of the Foundation. Over time Squadron personnel who visit regularly have become qualified as falconers and are able to help with the flying displays; this has been a great help to the Foundation, as it relies primarily on volunteers for the bulk of its work force.

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The Raptor Foundation is open to the public for visits and more information about the birds and the various experience days available can be found at the website, www.raptorfoundation.org.uk. If you have ever wanted to learn more about raptors and get up close and personal with birds of prey, whether it is owls, hawks, falcons or eagles, then you may be interested in becoming a volunteer at the Foundation. It’s a great way to help a much needed charity complete important conservation work.

It has been a great privilege to hold the duty of Squadron Mascot Falconer and I was sad to give up the duty, but I am due to leave 56(R) Squadron and the RAF in early 2014. It was time for me to step down and handover this amazing additional duty to Flight Sergeant Al Cameron; I am sure he will enjoy this duty as much as I have and I hope Troy will continue to be the 56(R) Squadron mascot for many years to come.

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