ADRIAN Hallgarth was just eight-years-old when one bright spring day he decided to play hookey from school so he could explore the woods near his home.
It was not the first time he had skived, nor would it be the last. Over the next eight years his reports show he took more time off than he attended.
But on this day in 1974, in woodland near Sheffield’s Gleadless Valley, the little lad stumbled across something that would change his life.
It was a baby tawny owl and the obsession it sparked would, as an adult, lead him to the gardens of the world’s rich and famous, to own his own business in the Scottish hills, and to a film set where a naked Mick Jagger would stand quizzing him.
“I was enchanted by the owl,” remembers the 44-year-old. “I thought it was injured and took it home to nurse it. I knew straight away I wanted to be a falconer.”
Today Adrian Hallgarth – the lad who grew up on a series of Sheffield’s toughest estates and was given appalling report after appalling report from Ashleigh Comprehensive School – lives in those Perthshire hills, owns more than 200 birds of prey, regularly travels across the globe performing displays and is the movie industry’s go-to-guy when a specially-trained bird is needed.
And he says it is all down to that little owl, in those Gleadless Valley woods, in 1974.
“People said I was the real life Kes,” he says at his home near the world famous Gleneagles Hotel and golf course. “And I suppose it’s true – I would get on my bike and ride about Sheffield while a bird flew after me like in the film.
“I just felt I had a natural affinity with birds. I hated school. Officially I left at 16 but I hadn’t been going since I was about 14. I just wanted to be out in the woods, exploring, getting my knees dirty. And when I discovered the tawny it was something I immediately wanted to know about. I was growing up on these sprawling estates and it spoke of a different life.”
That owl, as it turned out, wasn’t injured. Chicks instinctively drop on to the woodland floor to hide from predators.
It was something the young lad – who flitted between living with his steelworker dad in Gleadless Valley and his club singer mum in Hyde Park, Hackenthorpe, The Manor and Beighton – soon discovered as he set about voraciously researching his new friend. He read book after book, obsessively watched wildlife shows, and within just a few weeks had trained the animal to land on his wrist.
But look away now if you don’t like sad endings...
The owl died after being mauled by a cat.
What Adrian still hadn’t learnt then was that once a bird has been hand reared it cannot adapt back the wild. When he tried to release the bird, it perished.
“It was an awful learning curve,” he says.
Undeterred, he pestered his dad until he was bought a kestrel, the next in a line of dozens of birds he trained while still a child and teenager.
“It was my only hobby,” he says. “And the only thing I ever really wanted to do. I even met my wife Lynn when my bird startled her horse.
“We married when I was 18, and I remember her saying one time ‘It’s me or the birds’. All I said was ‘When are you leaving?’
“Fortunately, 26 years later, she hasn’t yet.
“But back then I’d be out on football fields or travelling out to the Derbyshire countryside every night.”
After leaving school the youngster took on a series of jobs – door to door delivery man, photocopier salesman, trainee engineer – but enjoyed none. So, when he was made unemployed in 1987 he took a drastic decision.
“The phrase banded around by the government at that time to the unemployed was get on your bike to find a job, so I did,” says Adrian. “I’d written to so many bird places asking for work and hadn’t received a single offer so I got in my car and drove up to a place in Scotland. I arrived and said I’ll be the best worker you have and I’ll do it for next to nothing. And they took me on.”
While Lynn stayed with daughter Kayley in South Yorkshire, Adrian spent the next couple of years perfecting his craft, and in 1989, with a growing reputation for his expertise, he became head falconer at the Gleneagles Hotel.
“ I was in paradise” he says. “Wandering around the forests and glens of Scotland doing what I loved and getting paid for it.”
He moved his family up there and in 1995 took the plunge and started his own business, Phoenix Falconry.
That business, today, employs five staff and has a global reputation for its handling days, display routines, falconry lessons and movie work.
Alan Rickman, Seal and, of course, Mick Jagger have all starred in films with his birds.
“It’s interesting on set,” says Adrian, now a dad to three grown-up daughters. “But you’re just trying to make sure the bird is OK.
“I remember with Mick Jagger, we were in a closed set on a film called Bent, where he was doing a naked scene, and work simply stopped as everyone, including Mick, became engrossed in my little falcon. Mick was a nice guy.”
His displays meanwhile have been carried out across the globe from America to the Middle East, while birds he breeds regularly sell for thousands of pounds to wealthy investors.
“My proudest moment was flying five falcons simultaneously at a Scottish show in 2000,” he says. “That’s never been done before or since – it felt good.”
He thinks for a moment.
“But when I consider my life I’m pretty proud of it all. Sometimes when I’m doing a show for someone like Prince Edward, I’ll look around and think ‘But I’m just a boy from The Manor who never went to school. How did this happen?’”
It happened because of that tawny owl in those Gleadless Valley woods in 1974.
Adrian Hallgarth is the real life Kes – only his was a happy ending.