I remember my first encounter with a barn owl very well. My friend and I were trespassing as usual, having great fun climbing trees. Whilst clambering up one gnarled ash, levering myself up by putting my hand into a natural hole in the trunk, I nearly fell to my doom: a frantic scrape of claws, a blur of dazzling white, the feeling of displaced air as something exited the hole a mere couple of inches from my face. My initial alarm turned to excitement as I realised what had happened; I had disturbed a barn owl from its daytime roost. We watched in awe as this lovely creature drifted around the nearby trees before gliding silently off across a field to seek sanctuary. From that moment I determined that barn owls were going to be my favourite bird; and they still are. Maybe it’s their intricately vermiculated feathering, maybe their secret, crepuscular habits, or maybe it’s simply those large forward looking liquid eyes set in such an innocent looking face. Whatever: the sight of one always gives a thrill. I love seeing them, and I’m sure you do too.
Barn owls have not always been considered creatures to cherish. In times gone by, our superstitious ancestry afforded it a sinister reputation; its nocturnal habits forging an association with doom and death. In these less enlightened times, to hear the screech of a barn owl as it flew past the window of a sick person foretold imminent death. A gruesome custom of nailing an owl to a barn door to ward off evil persisted into the 19th century.
It is a widespread bird, occurring on every continent except Antarctica. Its association with all things supernatural is therefore not limited to the UK. For example, in the folklore of North American tribes it was believed that when a wicked person died he or she would transform into a barn owl. Similarly in the Mediterranean regions barn owls were persecuted due to the belief they drank the oil of lamps in churches thus depriving saints of light.
Far from being some evil banshee, the barn owl is harmless to us humans, flying low and slow over the ground listening intently for its prey of voles, mice, rats and shrews which they hunt over rough grassland, meadows and road verges; the very habitat found on many of our Norfolk commons. They can be found widespread in our county from the relative dry heaths of Breckland, through mid-Norfolk parkland to north Norfolk coastal grazing marsh. In fact the common lands south of Norwich hold a very healthy population which make good use of the wide expanses of unimproved, wildlife rich meadows interspersed with stands of old trees that provide safe roosting and nesting sites. Despite the ravishes of the Beast from the East which I feared might have significantly reduced the population through starvation, I’ve had the pleasure of watching several of these lovely owls hunting small mammals for their chicks on noiseless wings over South Norfolk commons this summer. A real delight.
Barn owls don’t stray far from the site of their birth and will form monogamous pairs, breeding in tree cavities or in barns and quiet farm outbuildings. Many young birds will perish in their first year of life through collision with vehicles or an inability to find sufficient food during the winter months.
Those that survive that first spell of hardship generally live for an average of 4-5 years.
Barn owls are top predators but can only survive and flourish if there is a healthy population of prey species. They in turn can only proliferate if suitable habitat exists supporting plenty of food, breeding sites and safe haven.
Commons can often represent a vital oasis of unimproved tussocky grassland and scrub in a sea of intensively managed farmland or urban development and for this reason their value as wild spaces is immeasurable.
The fact we still have common land available for all to enjoy can be traced back in some measure to our very own Robert and William Kett, brothers who galvanised local commoners in revolt against the reversion of common rights, depriving people of their ability to graze animals, forage for firewood or to collect food.
There is revived interest in this slice of Norfolk history thanks to two recently published books; Rewriting the Rebellion by Leo Jary and Tombland by C J Sansom. Although the Kett revolt failed to prevent many thousands of acres of common land being lost, it is a vivid illustration of how important commons were, and still are, for both people and wildlife.
Without commons we would all be so much the poorer. We should cherish our commons that do survive so we can all continue to enjoy the enriching sight of this most beautiful of birds.