Flights of fancy: Behind the scenes at Coda Falconry

Daniel Evans talks to Sarah-Jane Manarin about the challenges of opening her own birds of prey centre.

Very few people are lucky enough to be able to make their passion their business but that’s what Sarah-Jane Manarin has managed to do not far from the M25 in Essex with her award-winning birds of prey centre.

The 34-year-old set up Coda Falconry in the summer of 2012 after volunteering at several similar centres across the UK. “I absolutely loved working alongside these beautiful birds and, after a long time spend studying wildlife and birds in particular, I decided to make it a career,” she tells me. “It was a very daunting prospect to set up a birds of prey centre on my own but it was a dream of mine to be able to offer affordable falconry experiences to people from a more urban community as this group is often forgotten when it comes to the more traditional pursuits.”

The business is almost unrecognisable from those early days as Sarah-Jane has gone from owning six birds of prey to more than 20. She explains: “Due to an incredibly high demand for our experience days, I moved the business to Lee Valley Park Farms, a beautiful, well known attraction on the Herts, Essex and London borders. This meant I could evolve the business to include flying demonstrations for the public as well as expand our corporate and media projects. As the centre is much larger than the start-up location, I am now able to offer group bookings for our experience days which have helped grow the business financially.

“We had our highest turnover ever last year with the final number standing at over £50k, much of which has been invested back into the company in the form of staff wages and refurbishments. We have recently finished a new bank of aviaries to house large owls where the public can view them easily and we have reconstructed the main centre building to make a more welcoming place where our experience day guests can be seated. Our experience day demand has tripled from 2015-2016 and we are expecting that figure to continue to rise throughout this year.”

Finance is always an important factor when it comes to setting up an SME and it was no different for Coda Falconry. “At the start of my business, I qualified for a Prince’s Trust loan which really helped in the initial start-up period when cash flow is always an issue. This loan enabled me to purchase essential equipment for the birds and get myself a van so I could attend offsite contracts. As the business grew steadily, I approached my bank NatWest to ask them for a business loan. They agreed and this money was used to build a new centre within Lee Valley Park Farms. This was a key moment for us. With the help of NatWest, I really could take the business to the next level and employ several members of staff to help run the centre.

“We’ve built up large aviaries around the perimeter of the flying arena so the public can view the birds easily and learn about all the different species on display. As the business has grown, I’ve been able to purchase some spectacular birds that people will gladly pay to see including a steppe eagle, peregrine falcon and a golden eagle. I’ve also noticed a big surge in the wedding market. After being involved with Hedingham Castle over the last few years as part of their jousting events, we were invited to attend one of their wedding fairs as we have two barn owls that can deliver people’s wedding rings as part of the ceremony and we are now booked up to do wedding ring deliveries into 2019.”

So, Sarah-Jane, what to you enjoy most about running your own business? “I enjoy being able to teach something that is my passion to a whole different variety of people who may never have come across the sport of falconry before. Conservation of our wildlife is very important to me and I love to convey this message to a large audience so my business gives me the perfect platform to do that. I also enjoy speaking on behalf of the NatWest Women in Business programme as it’s important to highlight the good work being done by women entrepreneurs across the country and I’m very proud to be a part of that.”

She is also in no doubt about what are the main attractions. “Our beautiful birds!” she says without hesitation. “Whether it’s our tiny Sunda Scops owl or our magnificent golden eagle, they’re centre stage in everything we do. We arrange two flying demonstrations every day so people can learn about the different species we have and the experiences we offer. Our most popular experience day is the Woodland Walk as this allows the customer to fly a barn owl through the beautiful woodlands surrounding the centre. We also have a two-hour, half day and full day medieval falconry experience which is based within the stunning grounds of Hedingham Castle.  On top of this, we have developed team building packages for our corporate customers and are expanding our television and media work with our birds featuring in some prominent music videos and films.”

Coda Falconry also has its own breeding programme of which Sarah-Jane is rightly proud. “We breed barn owls and the young owlets that we have bred are absolutely beautiful. I have been in contact with our local biodiversity team with plans to release a small number of our young owls into the wild so, hopefully, we can get the relevant documentation which will enable us to do that.”

Looking to the future, Sarah-Jane knows where she would like to be. “I would like to expand our breeding programmes and build a new set of aviaries which will house rare, breeding birds which I can sell to other falconry centres,” she says. “I would also like to continue with my research into bird behaviour and use that for future conservation projects. Other than that, I will keep building on an incredibly successful falconry centre to maximise our reach around  Herts, Essex and London.”

With that note of ambition, Sarah-Jane is off again to look after the birds she adores in a job she loves. Both in business and in life, she has done much to admire.