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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…..
This is a first. Never ever in the years I’ve been farming have we topped fields in January! Yes, I’ve experienced cold spells before, though these have generally been accompanied by snow or wetness of some sort and very often wind. Never before has the ground gone rock hard, hard enough to drive a tractor over without marking it. And, of course, we haven’t actually needed to top in the depths of winter as this has been done and dusted during spring, summer and autumn.
This week meadows we’ve been unable to touch for almost two years have, in the last couple of days of sub zero temperatures (and lack of precipitation since before Christmas), become frozen enough for us to cut. We’re hoping for a permanent freezing death of the rush – yes, forever dreaming, forever hopeful.
We have only a small window of opportunity. The thaw is expected and we’re trying to top around ten fields and bits of others. It was -5C when I took this photo, during the night and early morning of the 7th January the temperature dropped to -8C.
This is Five Corners, one of my favourite fields, secret and unexpected, bursting with wildlife and a hunting haunt of our barn owls. We top this pasture in a mosaic so as to leave cover for the owls’ prey and other wildlife.
I thought a bit of beauty was in order after the ordeal of the slug (no, no; murder hasn’t been committed…yet!)
Yesterday the sun was shining making the autumn colours glow in the hedges along Marshford lane, and on a twig of blackthorn we found an egg of the rare Brown Hairstreak butterfly.
These elusive butterflies are rarely seen as they fly high in the tree canopy, preferably around the tops of ash trees, feeding on aphid honeydew. They sometimes venture down to nectar on plants such as bramble, fleabane and hemp-agrimony.
Numbers are unfortunately declining steeply, largely because so many farmers trim their hedges every year. Eggs are particularly vulnerable as the female lays her eggs on the new growth of blackthorn, the caterpillar’s food plant, which is removed during trimming.
A couple of years ago Robert (I forgot to mention that his other pets are caterpillars, which he breeds through to moths and butterflies – better than slugs – just) found a young brown hairstreak caterpillar which duly pupated. He photographed the adult butterfly emerging, watched its wings expand, and then released it to fly quickly away to the tops of the trees.