COUNTRYDIARY

Af­ter wait­ing an hour for our wild­cats to ap­pear, a head peeps out of the hole

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Country - Robin Page

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.

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