|Leeds Castle Aviary is closed to the public since October 2012|
The last private owner of Leeds Castle, Lady Baillie, died in 1974. Lady Baillie (Olive Cecilia Paget) who gained her title by marrying her third husband Sir Adrian William Maxwell Baillie — 6th Baronet, was a daughter of the American Pauline Payne Whitney and the English Almeric Paget (Baron Queenborough), and inherited a considerable part of her mother’s family fortune. With this money she was able to buy the Castle during her second marriage (to Arthur Wilson Filmer) in 1926. After her death she left the Castle, while restored to its former beauty, to the Leeds Castle Foundation.
Lady Baillie’s interest in native and exotic birds resulted in a haven for bird life beyond the walls of Leeds Castle. Nowadays, Kingfishers, green Woodpeckers, mute Swans, black Swans, tufted Ducks and many more bird species are to be found across the estate, including goosanders on their annual winter visits.
In addition, this interest in birds, particularly Australian species led to a collection which was the most complete and well presented exotic bird collection in the UK in the 1950s. It all started with a few Australian Finches and a small number of black Swans, which were probably the first black Swans introduced in the UK in the 1930s. Leeds Castle now has a resident population of eight breeding pairs which are free to roam the grounds of the estate.
The 140 aviaries which were built at the time housed mainly parakeets and cockatoos, specialising in the beautiful pastel-coloured Australian Parakeets, Cockatoos and the Indian blue ringneck Parakeet. The collection today is more diverse and contains over 100 species from around the world, though Australian species are still represented in the aviaries, and their main focus is on Parakeets, Lorikeets, Cockatoos and Parrots, of which many take part in international captive breeding programmes.
Besides aviaries a so-called Duckery was designed in the early 1960s. Stéphane Boudin and Russell Page, interior designer and garden designer respectively, created this pond for breeding of both exotic and native waterfowl between the main entrance to the grounds and the Wood Garden.
The care and management of the growing bird collection demanded specialised attention and in 1963 Peter Taylor, a gardener on the estate, was formally employed as Lady Baillie’s birdman. While Mr. Taylor managed one of the most prestigious collections of birds in Europe (at the time), they were one of the first to successfully breed rare Australian Parakeets such as the Brown’s Rosella, the hooded Parakeet, the pileated Parakeet, the yellow ringneck Parakeet and many species of Lory and Lorikeet. The yellow ringneck Parakeet can still be seen and still breeds successfully.
This more professional approach ultimately led to a grand opening on the 25th May 1988, of the new Aviary, which was built to honour Lady Baillie, bearing her name at its entrance. The opening was performed by Princess Alexandria, the Royal Patron of the Leeds Castle Aviary. Vernon Gibberd, the architect of the new Aviary, incorporated the most progressive ideas and the advice of leading aviculturalists, which matched the new emphasis within the bird-keeping community: the need to establish self-sustaining captive populations. So the number of different species Mr. Taylor, who continued his work with Lady Baillie’s collection until his retirement in 1993, had to attend to was decreased, which allowed for more room and more pairs of some of the more threatened species. The enclosure design of the new Aviary moved away from the traditional rows of square cages and aimed to provide more specific habitats for the birds kept in captivity.
All the birds in the Aviary now have nesting facilities, protection from adverse weather conditions, specialised diets and an enclosure which is safe and secure. And some of them are even kept in bar-less enclosures, such as the crowned Crane. Such appropriate, stress free and closely monitored environments allow for successful captive breeding. They participate in several European Endangered species Programmes (EEPs) and co-operative efforts are being made worldwide to breed and reintroduce captive bred specimen of endangered species into their original habitats.
The Leeds Castle Aviary received to date three UK First-Breeding Awards: for the Von der Decken Hornbill (Tockus deckeni) in 1990, the Fischers Touraco (Tauraco fischeri) in 1992, and in 1997 for the Crowned Hornbill (Tockus alboterminatus).
Nevertheless, in 2011 the trustees of the Castle decided to close down Leeds Castle Aviary in October 2012. This drastic measure has been taken in the name of economy while experiencing an ongoing economic crisis in the EU.
(Sources: The Birds of Leeds Castle by Laura Gardner, 2001; Wikipedia; Zoo Grapevine — the journal of the Independent Zoo Enthusiasts Society, winter 2012)