There is an owl at the Priory. It’s a tawny owl and I hear it regularly. From as early as midday it hoots, often when I’m deep in thought (wondering what I am going to have for my tea) making me jump out of my skin. (Did I mention that I work alone). Perched up in or somewhere behind a stand of ugly, shaggy conifers just below the greenhouse, it taunts me. I’ve spent a fair bit of time looking out for him (or her). But it obviously enjoys the tease and hasn’t shown itself yet.
I built it a box. It was the first nest box I ever built. I put it up on a grand old oak on the east lawn. Here it is:
And to my astonishment it was used the very first spring after it went up.
And to my disappointment it was used by a wood pigeon. I was so incensed, I was going to go and get the tall ladder and a stick from the garage and poke out the cuckoo from its non-rightful home. But, whilst I sat scheming and muttering and sipping Earl Grey and smoking rollies (this was before I gave up), I got rather used to watching the adult pigeons carrying sticks inside and then sitting with their big fat heads poking out of the hole, daring me to evict them. So. I let them be.
I’ve found quite a few owl pellets in the garden and a dear neighbour from the village asked if she could come and collect some. She wanted to dissolve them in warm water and show the resultant tiny bones of voles and mice and what have you to schoolchildren. Whether the latter had any choice in the matter or indeed whether they were in school when the presentation was thrust upon them I don’t know. Perhaps she approached them in sweetshops or emerged from under their beds in the dead of night. Lovely lady though.
I was very keen to make and erect a barn owl box. I know that Margaret the Farmer (not her real name), who owns all the surrounding lands about the Priory, has had them roosting in one of her barns. So they were here even if I’d never seen one. I’d found an excellent website with all the information I needed in order to make a barn owl palace. Last summer, whilst mowing, I thought long and hard over the best oak tree to support the box and how I would enjoy watching the adults swooping down low over the flower meadow. Then, in the winter with time on my hands, and ready to start making the ‘box, I did a little further research. Damn.
Barn owls, like so many species of well, anything, are pretty picky. They need a rather particular hunting habitat. Grassland, quite a lot of it, that is neither grazed nor mown. Every year the grass grows to its full height and then in the winter it collapses. In the spring, fresh grass grows up through this dead grass and, in its turn, collapses. Over several years a thatch several inches thick builds up. And here in this deep, sheltered netherworld live the barn owls most particular tasty treat – the field vole. All of the pasture around the Priory is grazed by either Margaret’s sheep or her cows. And when she can, she cuts the rest for hay. The flower meadow in the Priory garden is mown in summer after most of the flowers have set seed. Then I continue to mow it (usually without my dog) through to the first frosts.
There is a patch of untended grassland just up river from the Priory. It must be knee-deep in voles (going by the above conditions). But sadly, it is slightly too far away and also far too small. Ho hum.
Maybe. Just maybe the tawny will nip into the nest box on the oak before the pigeons this year. If I can’t have barn owls I will certainly take tawnies.