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Marriages get off to a flying start with Echo

Nikki Wheetman with Echo the barn owl.

Nikki Wheetman with Echo the barn owl.

Churches, vicars and mother-of-the-bride hats are all things eight-month-old Echo has had to get used to in her role as a ring bearer.

Delivering the wedding rings to the happy couple as they say their vows in front of their friends and family is all in a day’s work.

And, as Echo prepares for her first full season as a ring bearer this year, her owner, Nikki Wheetman who lives near Harleston, spoke to reporter Amy Smith about what life is like training, living and working with a barn owl.

“She is very much one of us, a part of the family,” said Mrs Wheetman, who got Echo at four-weeks-old last June.

“I made sure I had enough time to bring a baby owl up and to give her a really good start.

“When you hand rear them you have to feed them every three to four hours and they have to be with you all the time.”

Mrs Wheetman, who has owned owls in the past, knew she wanted to get another owl, and after seeing a video of an owl delivering wedding rings on the Internet, had an idea to launch her own business.

“I looked at it on the Internet and I thought it was stunning and a bit quirky,” said Mrs Wheetman.

“There was no one in this area that seemed to be doing it so I thought there’s no reason why I can’t do that.

“I had to make sure I chose an owl that wouldn’t look too imposing at a wedding because a lot of people would never have handled a bird before and I didn’t want to frighten people.”

At just four weeks old, Echo was a tiny ball of fluff and feathers, so it was down to Mrs Wheetman to raise her and train her to become a ring bearer.

“When you hand rear and you are feeding them you introduce whatever call you are going to use in your training.

“You then progress that so that when she is able to fly you use that same call and give her a reward,” she said.

“You work them on a craence (a long line) until they are confident, accurate and their response is fast.

“Then you can start letting them fly free on familiar territory.

“You build everything with safety in mind and there is no good asking her to do something if she’s not confident.”

By September last year, Echo was ready to start work, and attended a few weddings and fairs as an introduction.

“I called on friends to come and be part of a wedding so she could get used to people in a church and in wedding hats and we practised with a vicar so she could get used to him in his gown,” said Mrs Wheetman.

“Her training will never truly stop and at each new venue we go to I will always ask if we can go along before the event so she is happy and confident.”

In her role as ring bearer, Echo’s job is to fly down the aisle and deliver the rings to the nominated person who has been briefed to unclip the bag which is attached to her jesses (thin straps attached to Echo’s feet) by ribbons.

Echo then collects her treat and flies back to Mrs Wheetman who is waiting at the back of the room for her.

The person receiving the rings is given a glove with a piece of food to hide in it and Echo has been trained to fly when she sees that glove go in the air.

As well as getting in a practice run at the venue, Echo also spends time with the person she will be delivering the rings to beforehand, so they can have a flying session, meet her and get used to handling 
her.

“It’s a very special thing seeing your bird fly down a church aisle,” said Mrs Wheetman.

“I’m very proud of her because she gives so much pleasure to people.

“The look on people’s faces when they see her is worth every second of all that training.

“And at all the weddings she has been to she has done really well.”

After the ceremony, guests can have their photo taken with Echo and ask questions about her.

But working is only a small part of Echo’s life, spending most of her time in the Wheetman household (despite having her own aviary) watching television, dive-bombing the dog’s water bowl and tweeting at Mrs Wheetman for attention.

Echo is currently enjoying a winter break while Mrs Wheetman works as a road gritter for Norfolk County Council, but she will be back in business by the spring.

For more information about Echo, her job as a ring bearer, or to book her to be a part of your wedding, which costs £300, call Mrs Wheetman on 07990798685 or visit www.owlringbearers.co.uk

 

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