BELFAST'S BOY ZONE; from Birdlife to Bars and a Manly Spa -MATT WARREN Takes a Boys' Break in Northern Ireland

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Byline: MATT WARREN

Really? I thought owls were YOU don't get many vultures in Northern Ireland -- and yet here I am standing in a car park with one on my arm. She is sitting there quite happily, keeping one beady eye on me and the other on the chicken morsel being held up by her owner 20 yards away.

'Give her a little throw and she'll come straight towards me,' he shouts. 'Don't worry, she won't peck.' I follow his instructions and give Hilda -- yes, that really is her name -- a little shunt, at which signal she spreads her enormous wings and glides into effortless flight across the car park. It's hardly the African savannah, but she looks quite happy, especially when she lands on her owner's glove and gulps down her little treat.

'She's very clever,' the vulture man explains. 'If there's food around, she'll find it. Unlike the owl. The owl's a real dimwit.'

Really? I thought owls were supposed to be the wise ones.

'Yep, they're like goldfish. Her memory is only 20 seconds long.

She often forgets where she is.' Eight of us are on a boys' weekend at Slieve Donard, in the stately seaside town of Newcastle, 20 miles or so south of Belfast. It might seem like an unlikely destination for a 'lad's break', but after much debate, we had decided against the rumbustious bars of Magaluf, Prague and Tenerife -- and elected for a spa hotel in rural Ulster instead.

A spa hotel? For men? Well, we would be doing some manly activities, too. And so that's how we ended up trying our hand at falconry in the hotel car park.

The falconer has brought four birds along -- and we try our hand at all of them, except, ironically, the falcon. Apparently, he's one for the experts.

The owl is indeed a little slow and doesn't do much in the way of stunts or aerobatics. Nor does she 'twitt' or 'twoo' -- very disappointing.

But after taking turns flying good old Hilda, we turn our attentions to the Harris hawk -- and he is in the mood for performing. The falconer tells us he can be used for hunting and will fly wherever you direct him -- a natural-born killer.

The seagulls certainly know a threat when they see one. As soon as the hawk takes to the air, they cluster together to form a tightpacked, screeching tornado, like a shoal of fish coming together in the face of a predator. It is fascinating to watch.

Falconry certainly takes a steady nerve. OK, so you are wearing an extremely tough leather gauntlet.

But standing still while a vast bird of prey swoops down towards you, razor sharp talons outstretched, is rather like trying to keep calm while someone shoots arrows at an apple balanced on your head. It just doesn't come naturally. But at least you can go for a spa afterwards, feeling like your masculinity is fully intact.

SLIEVE DONARD, a grand old Victorian pile named after Northern Ireland's highest peak, has been fully refurbished, and its spa is top notch. …