NESTING birds at the Falconry Centre at Batsford scattered their eggs and were injured flying around cages in panic as hounds from the Heythrop Hunt tore through on Saturday.

Families with young children in pushchairs and toddlers screamed in terror as the pack of around 20 hounds bounded through the centre and neighbouring Arboretum Garden Centre.

Geoff Dalton, founder of the falconry centre, said staff were now anxiously monitoring birds and their eggs to see if the breeding programme for this year was ruined.

With a waiting list for several of the rare birds of prey bred at the centre, the damage could run into thousands of pounds if eggs fail to hatch. Some birds carrying eggs inside them may have burst them, which may cause peritonitis.

Mr Dalton said he had called a vet to examine the birds.

"We are monitoring them very closely," he said. "If we lost chicks it would be a disaster. Several nesting pairs abandoned their nests, scattering the eggs, and some of these may have got chilled.

"We will have to wait until the end of the month before we know if we have lost any but I was pleased to see the birds did go back to their nests and start gathering their eggs up.

"The hounds were bounding around, causing the birds to panic, flying into the wire on their cages and damaging their noses.

"It wasn't just the birds, we had between 30 and 40 visitors here at the time and they were horrified. The hounds just appeared out of nowhere."

Among the bids most at risk are Rufus owls, Ural owls, Ferruginous hawks and red-tailed hawks.

Stuart Priest, director of operations for the Batsford Foundation, which runs the Arboretum and Garden Centre, said: "It was an unfortunate accident but the hunt, which regularly passes through Batsford land, might need to consider steering clear of public areas on the estate like us and the falconry centre.

"It's very difficult to accommodate the hunt and the public together."

Hunt joint master Liz Wills said: "We deeply regret this happened. I can only assume that a fox must have crossed the trail the hounds were following and they veered off. We certainly didn't lay a trail through the arboretum.

"I can understand that the public were alarmed by the dogs but they posed no threat to the public. I have visited Mr Dalton and was pleased that the birds did seem to be settling down."

She said if chicks had died, any compensation would be a private matter between the centre and the hunt.