After waiting an hour for our wildcats to appear, a head peeps out of the hole
Way up north in Scotland, beyond the Cairngorm Mountain, is a small wild stream flowing from a remote, deserted valley. It joins the River Avon (pronounced Arn) and it is a place where salmon spawn and otters fish. The valley was not always deserted, for half way up, often obscured by mist, is a tumbledown crofter’s cottage. What a place to work, live and dream. But it is only a dream, which is why it is a tumbledown cottage. The last crofter obviously found the work too hard and left; now the abandoned cottage is gradually falling down.
It is a sad story and the house is cold and damp, with puddles and mud on the floor showing that the roof leaks and that cattle have visited for winter shelter. But suddenly, this time last year, other visitors moved in – wildcats. “I’ve seen them,” a friend told me. “There were a family of kittens curled up in hay on a window sill, looking out of the window. They watched me for some time – they looked so comfortable that they couldn’t be bothered to move.”
I’ve seen cross cats and stroppy cats, but never genuine wildcats. So I decided to take Lulu to see them. We approached slowly and quietly downwind, communicating in nods. No kittens were in the window, so slowly and silently we edged to the collapsed front door. Through mud and cowpats we travelled, stopping at every squelch until we reached the stairs. All was silent. The bannisters were broken and some of the wood was rotten. We tiptoed on and up. The boards creaked, our breath showed white.
Under a holed ceiling, we edged our way to an old doorway and sat and waited. Nothing. Silence.
Jackdaws called down the valley. We dared not move. Suddenly there was movement up in the roof. Was it a wildcat and kittens? Silence returned for an hour – surely a record for Lulu. I decided to try to speed up the process by “squeaking” the wildcats out. I sucked the back of my hand, hoping to sound like a young rabbit or rat, which to the wildcat would be “dinner”. I paused. An eerie silence.
After five minutes, I squeaked again – movement, then nothing. More squeaking, more movement, lumping and banging. Something was making for the hole in the roof. Lulu looked tense and I was hardly breathing. Then, suddenly, a large head looked out – a large, white, beautiful head with a beak: a barn owl.
It looked even more amazed than we were and then it flew by, within 18 inches of my face, down the stairs and out into the valley. I had “squeaked out” a barn owl.
Instead of an easy dinner, it had got a fright, and so had I. So we had seen no wildcat, but had instead had a close encounter with one of our favourite birds.
I had always thought that Scotland was on the northern edge of the barn owl’s range, but on that trip we saw several and they appeared to be in good condition; sadly that is not the situation throughout Britain. The barn owl’s favourite and most common food is the ordinary field vole, but the problem is that every few years the population of the field vole crashes and, as a consequence, the barn owl goes hungry (or tries to catch shrews). Why this should happen is a mystery, but it does – last year was the most recent occasion. The year before, I actually stopped cutting a field of grass as there were so many voles and I felt guilty mincing them.
Colin Shawyer of the Wildlife Conservation Partnership, probably Britain’s foremost expert on barn owls, believes that the vole crash last year was made worse by a very cold, damp spring. As a result, he says, barn owls experienced their worst breeding year for 20 years. “The adults survived all right,” he says. “There are 4-6,000 pairs in Britain and their numbers are slowly going up. But the shortage of food last year stopped many of them getting into breeding condition.” He even saw male owls with very tattered wing tips, as if they had been diving into hedge-bottoms, suggesting a forced switch from voles to shrews.
This year there are signs of voles again, suggesting the barn owl’s favourite breakfast is back on the menu. We must keep our fingers and toes crossed.