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The cattle were bawling again. They’d been at it on and off all day.
‘What is up with them?’ I muttered to myself ‘I only moved them Friday? Can’t be short of grass yet, surely.’
I was in the middle of feeding hens, feeding dogs, getting washing in, and picking veggies for supper.
I had another thought – perhaps the water wasn’t working and they were thirsty. That would explain the ruckus. I called over to Robert who was busy saving potatoes (you’ve guessed, they’ve all got blight. Damn it. Well, one bed anyway)
‘You couldn’t check on the cows for me could you? Don’t know what’s got into them. Water possibly?’ Robert’s far more able to deal with water repairs than I am.
‘No’ he said when he reappeared ‘Water’s fine. They’re hungry. Starving actually!’
‘Weird, there was plenty of grass there. Okay. Let’s move them then.’
We set off down the lane. It’s been a good year for our farm. Ideal conditions from winter to summer have resulted in an abundance of grass without our normal swamp-like conditions.
‘Where are you moving them too?’ asked Robert.
‘Five and Dung’ I replied ‘Though it could be Dillings, Flop or Top!’ I grinned up at him ‘Good to have a choice once in a while.’
Five Acres and Dung Field are at the end of a remnant of ancient green lane. To get there we pass Turkey Shed, a beautiful haphazard barn made from elm boarding which Robert restored twenty odd years ago. I love it; it’s one of the most beautiful buildings on the farm. At the time of its restoration Robert installed a barn owl box, which had never been used for breeding but it did become a favourite roosting site. This year, though, the owls’ preferred box in another barn was taken over by jackdaws and they resorted to nesting in Turkey Shed.
The cattle turned up the lane with me bringing up the rear – as we passed Turkey Shed I noticed feathers in the mud and a few yards further on there was the dead mutilated body of a barn owl.
‘Oh no, oh no, no. Robert, look! One of the barn owls…oh I can’t believe it.’ We secured the cattle into the field and went back to the dead owl.
‘That’s tragic. Just awful. After all those years.’ The barn owls have been severely hit by the last three years of unprecedented wetness and as far as we know haven’t bred successfully on the farm for about four. And now this…
‘I think we’d better check the nest. Just to be sure there are no chicks starving in there.’ Robert said as we looked up at the nest box for signs of life. ‘I’ll get a ladder. Can you bring down a box and torch?’
By the time I got back Robert was up the ladder. ‘Can you hand me the torch.’ He asked. I passed it up ‘What can you see? Anything there?’ I asked as I craned my neck ‘Empty?’
‘Er…yes, uh….wait a moment. No! There’s one here. Oh god…its foot. Its foot’s caught! Uh…baler twine…it’s caught up in baler twine. Tight around its foot…it’s tethered!’ he attempted to cut it free ‘Got it. Here…’and he passed me the lightest bundle of stinking snowy-white fluff. One foot was grossly deformed and swollen, baler cord biting deep into the flesh just above the foot. I rushed up to the house with my precious bundle
‘Oll, Oll! Can you help please? I’ve got a baby owl…baler cord caught tight around its foot…need some help…got to get it off. Are you there?’
Olly came down the stairs ‘Ah Jesus! Poor bugger. That’s awful. Hang on I need scissors…bloody hell it’s going to be painful when it comes off…’
Together we carefully and methodically cut away the cord buried deep into the tissue above the foot and around a toe. I feared gangrene, infection, the worse. Once we’d removed all the tiny fibres I bathed the foot in warm, salty water and massaged it gently with teatree oil.
We now had a tiny, traumatised wild owlet in our midst. Would he survive? Would the shock and the pain prove too much for him? After all barn owls are notoriously emotionally sensitive…difficult.
It was getting late. After I’d forced-fed him strips of raw beef I put him to bed in a box lined with fleece. Tomorrow, if he survived the night, I’d phone the vet, source some suitable food and get as much advice as I could.
Hoorah! Our barn owls are back after a lapse of three years. One’s been screeching and screaming in and around the yard for a week or so, his bright white droppings clearly visible on the concrete and yesterday Robert got a good look at him.
When we first came here, barn owls used a couple of our barns for roosting but the birds clearly found them unsuitable for breeding. So, when Robert and friend Tony built Top Barn adjacent to the farmhouse, they placed a nesting box high in the apex, hoping it would be more to the owls’ liking. Lo and behold a breeding pair settled in comfortably within the year. We had our breeding barn owls… right next to the house.
This was before the time of instant internet access (or even household PCs), or of common-or-garden digital cameras, videos, camcorders and the like. Soon after the owls moved in, I was at the Devon County Show and saw a stand launching an infra-red nest box camera and I bought it for Robert’s birthday. After a few teething problems he soon had it up and running, and in the comfort of the study we had 24/7 access to the private life of the barn owl.
It was mesmeric and addictive – far better than anything Big Brother has to offer. We watched and learnt much about our pair of owls. They were devoted to one another and though mates often roost in separate locations these never did, enjoying each other’s company during the day, preening, talking, nuzzling and shuffling after one another. When the female began to lay eggs and brood them the male couldn’t have been more attentive bringing her tasty morsels and relieving her of her duties so she could stretch her wings. It was quite enchanting. They managed to raise several young, sharing the burden of hunting and brooding – the male always watchful, making sure his mate had a portion of the prey before the ravenous youngsters were fed their share.
This continued for a good few years, the owls becoming part and parcel of our lives. The youngsters, familiar with our voices and movements, were soon imprinting on us, screeching and yelling at us for food, wobbling around on their nest box platform like a bunch of gargoylish, gorky bobbing puppets. They were captivating and once feathered, hauntingly beautiful. We watched their maiden flights in the dimpsy twilight around Top Meadow, holding our breath as they ventured further afield with each night’s growing confidence.
Suddenly, one year, the female was no longer around. Her mate was devastated, moping and calling for her. He succeeded in finding another female, but it was not the same, there was none of the intimacy and care. Their brood was smaller and not as successful. We believe that from then on his mates changed every year but by this time our camera had broken after many years of constant use.
Four years ago we experienced an explosion in the vole population. The following year, as often happens, there was a crash and our owl family did not breed. Since then we’ve had two unprecedented wet years with not a barn owl to be seen hunting over the farm – it has been very sad. But now at least one is back, and calling…..