The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 30.12.16

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Santa has put his feet up and can now rest for another year. The few remaining turkeys can relax in the knowledge that they too are safe for now. Yet Christmas has not really been the happiest time for domestic poultry! For instance, the threat of avian influenza has meant that my motley little flock had had to be confined to a life indoors because of an order issued by the authorities which demands that all poultry must be kept isolated from I wild birds. Mind you, I guess that they therefore managed to miss the passage of both Barbara and Connor as a result!

However, I find this restrictive decree slightly puzzling in view of the fifty million (at the latest count) pheasants released during the past year and currently wandering about the British countryside. I would have thought that they might have posed a rather more serious threat of transmitting bird 'flu due to their wilder state, their consequent regular contact with wild birds and the likelihood of closer contact with far travelled migrants! Migrating birds, it is said, are the likeliest sources of infection. However, whatever else we can do, we cannot stop the global movement of birds!

As much as we wonder at the remarkable spectacle that is the story of bird migration, this now well-studied phenomenon totally baffled our ancestors. The very concept of millions of birds translocating across thousands of miles - and twice a year at that - was beyond the thought processes of folks who, compared with modern generations, mostly knew very little about the world beyond their own home patch. Indeed, despite the remarkable pace of change in terms of universal travel that has occurred within my own lifetime, I have nevertheless known people whose knowledge and experience of the wider world has not been expanded, resulting in some whose experiences have been surprisingly restricted and narrow.

For instance, I once had cause to know a farm worker, who toiled away daily on his brother-in-law's farm in the remote Northern Pennines. This hard working soul freely admitted that he had never seen the sea...which was incidentally, not more than thirty miles from where he lived! Indeed, he was moved to enquire as to what the sea looked like! I recalled a line from a play written by J.B. Priestley - "I once went to Barnsley," the character in the play declared. For my farm-based friend, Barnsley, probably fifty or sixty miles south of his moorland home, could have been on the other side of the world or indeed the moon for all he knew! His extremely limited view of the world may have been unusual in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet such were the limitations placed upon my very real farm worker and upon Priestley's fictional character in his Yorkshire based play that such oddities did still occur even in the confines of the rapidly shrinking world of the nineteen sixties!

Goodness knows what my farm worker friend might have made of the logistics of bird migration or indeed what he eventually made of television. In the nineteen sixties, when I knew him, TV was an invention that had not reached the remote countryside in which he dwelt and worked. I wonder too, what he must have made of the sea when he finally got to see it, probably on a minuscule television screen! My ten year old grandson cannot believe that there were people around during my lifetime that, in the nineteen sixties had neither seen the sea, watched television nor indeed had the faintest notion as to what a computer was! But then I too, am by comparison with this extremely modern child, an absolute Luddite!

Thus, as one who is old enough to recall people living in such real isolation, the recent exploits of a dedicated ornithologist in following the migratory journey of Berwick's swans from Northern Russia to their eventual destination at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, is utterly mind boggling! The fact that she followed them using a motorised para-glider, known as a 'para-motor', is even more mind-blowing. Here we are approaching the seventh day of Christmas. Upon this day, the carol tells us, an unlikely romantic sent his 'true love', "Seven swans a swimming" and here is this young lady flying with not seven but hundreds or even thousands of swans across 7,000 frozen miles of northern skies! Bear in mind that throughout her three-month long journey, she was as exposed to the treacherous weather of northern Europe as the swans themselves. They however, are clad in a suit of feathers, which have evolved over millions of years, whilst she had to rely upon modern clothing technology. Rather her than me!

The reason for this extraordinary, life risking adventure, perhaps the most amazing piece of avian research ever undertaken, was to try and find out why the population of these swans has been falling so alarmingly. In hindsight, what she discovered was not altogether surprising. One fact seemed to stand out above any other. The people who inhabit the truly remote northern regions of Russia (the Northern Pennines by comparison would seem more like the very epicentre of human civilisation) seem to remain in many ways, locked in a time warp. They are, she discovered, guilty of shooting the swans because they had come to believe that they scared off the geese which regularly fly in formation with the swans and which they shoot as a means to an end...to eat! They are apparently also aware that the swans are protected but believe that this protection is because they appear in fairy stories!

What those isolated northern folk made of this dedicated lady's exploits aboard what in essence is a motorised kite, all in an academic pursuit of birds, which they randomly kill and perhaps eat, makes for some interesting speculation! Perhaps our problem is that we have become far too sophisticated and indeed perhaps, too full of our own apparent knowledge in comparison with those simple folk who survive in real wilderness. Thus we add huge complexities to our lives, whereas those northern folk, detached from the world, as we know it and living perhaps a simpler if extremely testing lifestyle, see things in a less complicated, more practical manner!

Nevertheless, this was an outstanding piece of work concerning the smallest of the world's swans, similar though they are to the whooper swans we play host to each winter, which are also intrepid autumn travellers. Whoopers also breed in Arctic regions. The ones that winter here all come from Iceland but other populations from areas adjacent to that inhabited by Bewick's in Northern Europe, winter in other parts of Europe. A good number of years ago, I was lucky enough to spot a Bewick's swan off the Ayrshire coast. It was the first one to have ever been spotted in that part of Scotland and the only reason I was able to identify it as a Bewick's swan was because it had been dyed yellow in an effort to trace its movements. It was a sighting long pre-dating such contraptions and para-motors. Thus, it was in those days I guess, much easier to catch the bird and dye it than try and fly with it!

There will be readers I'm sure, who may be moved to think that such high-flying exploits go way beyond the pale. However, as we say farewell to 2016, that intrepid traveller has most certainly made her mark. Therefore, she is my personality of the departing year without question! I hope you and she all have... A Guid New Year!

Country View 21.12.16

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On Saturday night Santa will be careering across the world's skies, his present-laden sleigh hauled of course by his reindeer, traditionally named as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph - he of the red nose - is very much a twentieth century addition to that list. These deer are usually associated with Arctic northern latitudes, especially with Lapland, where reindeer are absolutely central to the lives of the native Sami people there. However, there are also herds of reindeer to be found in Russia, Norway, Svalbaard and Greenland. In North America, they are known as caribou.

Long ago, it seems wild reindeer were also present here in Scotland. There are a number of legends associated with reindeer hunts from way back in our history. For instance, we are told of a twelfth century hunting party, led by the Earl of Orkney, chasing reindeer across parts of the far north of Scotland, albeit that much doubt is thrown over this story which may in reality have been about a pursuit of red deer not reindeer. More curiously, there is an even stranger tale of a centuries old 'horn dancing' ritual still held every September in the unlikely lowland location of Staffordshire, apparently celebrating the former presence there of reindeer and so presumably also telling of reindeer hunting exploits.

These days, there is, of course, a herd of reindeer well established in Scotland. The Cairngorm based reindeer farm was established back in the nineteen fifties and is now being expanded and re-located, although still in the Cairngorms. Indeed, for the British leg of his journey, Santa is said to use reindeer from the Cairngorms! However, our single herd of Scottish reindeer is perhaps, not seen as being commercially valuable as the massed herds that exist in Lapland where not only do the Sami folk eat lots of reindeer meat and indeed sell it too, but also clothing themselves by using reindeer hides. Other parts of the animals are converted into coats, boots and even canoes! In other words the lives of those northern peoples are utterly intertwined with the lives of reindeer.

Reindeer are unusual in that both sexes are equipped with antlers. In addition, their large, splayed out feet, compared with the dainty 'slots' of our more familiar red deer, are also ideal for running across deep snowfields. Reindeer however, are also extremely docile animals and having spent a little time among them some years ago, I'm surprised that they allegedly survived into the twelfth century in what was then a hunting mad Scotland! Because of their temperaments and extremely docile nature, it is hard to imagine that they could ever have provided huntsmen with even passable sport! They would certainly have been exceptionally easy to kill, which is probably why they died out here. However, elsewhere in Northern Europe, where the main predator of reindeer is the wolf, modern herds of reindeer are well protected from this arch predator by the folk who entirely depend upon the herds for their living.

But reindeer, in defending themselves from such predators, do have a unique asset denied, as far as I know, to any other animal on this planet, in that they can see exceptionally well in extremely low light due to their ability to receive ultra violet rays. This does apparently provide an effective early warning system as to the presence of wolves, enabling the deer to take evasive action and make themselves scarce at the first, distant sign of approaching wolves. Their main sources of food are lichens and mosses and they use both antlers and hooves to dig through the snow that is a permanent feature across their Arctic environments in order to uncover the vegetation they require for sustenance.

However it seems that reindeer are now threatened by the incidence of global warming and recent reports from Russia, tell us that unusually, the average weight of reindeer in places such as Spitzbergen has fallen by some twelve per cent over the course of the past sixteen years. This weight loss is thought to be due to the increasing incidence of precipitation falling in the form of rain rather than snow, which in the low temperatures of those northern latitudes, then freezes, preventing the reindeer from getting through to the vegetation they need. The resultant lack of an intake of nutrients in turn means that reindeer calves are being born under weight, never managing to catch up. Similar weight losses have been recorded elsewhere and in Russia it is reported that a few years ago in the winter of 2013, reindeer depths on Siberia's Yamal Peninsular rose dramatically for the very same reason. Again it seems, rain replaced snow, only to freeze solid and deny the animals access to those vital food resources.

Nevertheless, the world's children should not fret. Santa's reindeer hauled sleigh is expected to complete the mammoth task of delivering presents to the 700 million children currently thought to inhabit this planet. Researchers have calculated that as the world's population continues to grow, so too does Santa have to speed ever faster on Christmas Eve to complete his rounds. It is calculated that in order to complete the task on that single night, the sleigh careers through the sky at an approximate speed of six million miles per hour!

Which is precisely why, not even the sharpest child ever enjoys as much as a glimpse of the bearded gentleman in the red suit as he completes his rounds. Half a blink of the eye and he has gone! Incidentally, further research is based inevitably upon Einstein's theory or relativity - which as everyone knows is the end all and be all of everything! To achieve such velocity, University academics have discovered, Santa, his reindeer and indeed his present laden sleigh as a consequence, shrink to such minuscule proportions as to enable him to scale even the narrowest of chimneys in the process. However, perhaps that's another reason for those weight-shedding reindeer?

Furthermore, with so many of today's presents being heavier and bulkier due to modern technology (with or without batteries!), it is thought that Santa has been forced to recruit more and more teams of reindeer in order to fulfil his commitments right round the world. It has to be hoped of course, that he can dodge the shells and rockets around war torn Aleppo and indeed reach every single child whether threatened by warfare or indeed anywhere where children are struggling against abject poverty and indeed, starvation, wherever they are.

Perhaps, above all Christmas is a time for renewed hope of better things to come and indeed all of us should remind ourselves that this is a time when our thoughts should always be directed towards those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Giving, as it says in the Good Book, is more blessed than receiving. My wish for all of them and of course, for all of you, is a very Happy Christmas!

Country View 14.12.16

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Joey was a real character, a foundling that had been reared as a chick by a young boy. Whether or not he was simply found or perhaps more questionably, taken from the nest, I know not. However, the boy's mother eventually had had enough of Joey's persistent mischief making and misdemeanours. As a result, she instructed her son to 'get rid of it!' Meanwhile, Joey had discovered a nearby roadside cafe - food, not necessarily for thought but food if you were clever enough, for free - available throughout the day from customers' plates and thus not exactly to the pleasure of the cafe's proprietor, or indeed his clients. What was at first an amusement soon became a thorough nuisance.

All members of the corvid clan somehow attract varying degrees of hostility and Joey, being a jackdaw, was no exception. However, his regular presence at the cafe became such a nuisance that I was asked to intercede. As he was so tame, he readily perched upon my shoulder and so I was able easily to take him in hand and take him home. Joey settled in very well but we soon discovered that it was necessary for us to keep all windows closed for he turned out to be an expert jewel thief! All jackdaws are known to find sparkly objects particularly fascinating and Joey had an especially keen eye for such things and given the chance, would seize such prizes and hide them away.

Crows in general, as I've said many times before, are exceptionally intelligent and again Joey was no exception. He was also very sociable and soon began to pay visits to our neighbours...uninvited. On the occasion of one flying visit, he decided to inspect the inner reaches of a neighbour's car, finding a convenient perch on one of the headrests. The owner, utterly unaware of Joey's presence, jumped in, started the engine, put the car into gear, looked in her mirror, saw Joey and immediately jumped out! Happily someone was on hand to bring the vehicle to a halt before any damage was well and truly done! In addition, another neighbour, hearing a curious hammering sound emanating from her utility room, on investigation, discovered Joey pecking furiously at a de-frosting loaf!

As a result of such unwanted visitations, Joey had sadly to be incarcerated and consigned to life in an aviary. But even then, he maintained his sense of mischief. A neighbour's dog was in the habit of visiting our garden and every time it did, Joey yelled out "Joey" several times. The dog, not aware of any human presence and not knowing from whence the voice was coming, always quickly turned tail and fled! However, Joey's was a limited vocabulary yet now I began to gain increasing respect for a bird, which might have been quite a linguist, given the chance! Although in the early days he often made a nuisance of himself, he was nevertheless, a mighty intelligent bird.

Jackdaws are the smallest members of the crow family, noted for a handsome greying of the head plumage at the nape of the neck and for their grey or in the case of young birds, blue eyes. That jackdaws clearly have an appetite for pleasurable activity was well demonstrated to me the other day. The wind had got up and suddenly the sky was filled with a mass of jackdaws. Their loud 'chacking' or 'jacking' echoed across the landscape before suddenly, this horde of birds began to fling itself about the sky like so many dancing dervishes.

Their gyrations were simply mind boggling as birds raced down the wind, soaring upwards before with a flick of their wings, they were all hurtling towards the ground at breakneck speed. Jackdaws, by the way, have been recorded flying down the wind at over eighty miles an hour! Despite their death defying antics there is never even the slightest suggestion of any bird losing control. Indeed, some of them, as they hurled themselves across the sky, seemed to be playing a gigantic game of tag. Yet perceptibly, many of the participants in this wind-defying game were clearly playing in pairs.

On other calmer days, I have of late been watching jackdaws flying from building to building in two of our local villages...always in pairs. Often they descended to street level to explore the tossed away remnants of a sandwich or perhaps resort to inspecting the litter-bins in the hope of finding something like the remains of fish suppers! During both winter and summer, they always seem to operate in pairs, for jackdaws are among the most constant and faithful of birds, pairing for life, the bond between 'husband and wife' strengthening with each passing year.

Jackdaws live in highly structured societies, with a kind of caste system dictating the place of each bird in the community. As is often the case in human society, those deemed to be inferior birds are sometimes bullied by their superiors, which of course, also always enjoy the best feeding. However, when a previously persecuted female pairs up with one of the 'upper class' males, she often, in company with her partner, aggressively seeks retribution against the birds that previously bullied her. 'Marrying' above her station quickly lifts her into the higher ranks!

Most flocks of jackdaws have a clearly distinguished 'head' bird leading the flock. Surprisingly perhaps, this chieftain seems to take a benevolent view of his underlings, whilst at the same time always keeping them in their place. This hierarchy seems to work well and even more surprisingly, should disputes in the flock arise, the 'boss' will usually take the side of the 'underdog' and thus quickly resolve the quarrel!

Because jackdaws are so easy to tame, those who study the foibles of avian life are naturally and more easily, able to study these birds very closely indeed. In addition, they also quickly bond with their 'owners'. Hence we probably know more about them than we do about most other avian species. Whatever the purpose of such studies, I am sure that those scientists not only learn about the jackdaw's lifestyle but also derive much pleasure from their research. To my mind, jackdaws are birds which enjoy life and exude an air of comedy. They always bring a smile to my face. Not only do they leave us open-mouthed at their amazing aerobatics - their sheer flying versatility - but they also bring, when they come down to ground a 'Chaplainesque' air whilst strutting their stuff among the madding crowds.

However, one downside of having jackdaws as neighbours is that they rather fancy chimneys as nesting sites. I know of a number of such incidents - they largely build their nests from sticks - and on more than one occasion have been known to fill a chimney so thoroughly with twigs that their nests eventually went from chimney top all the way down to the ground floor! And of course, because of their community orientated way of life, where one pair of jackdaws chooses a nesting site, others will not be far away - in other adjacent chimneys perchance? Jackdaws can frequently be seen around chimney pots, so look up!

Watch out then for jackdaws on those windy winter days. You will I'm sure, be amazed by their aerial dexterity. You may also quite legitimately interpret their 'jacking' as laughter! They are without doubt, fun loving birds!

Country View 7.12.16

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There are those who might quite legitimately argue that the instinct to hunt other creatures is at the very heart of man's evolution and survival. Indeed, it is surely true that our survival has in large part, been sustained by our ability to chase, catch and slaughter our fellow creatures. Thus, our ancestors fed themselves and indeed clothed themselves, courtesy of the creatures they were able to kill. Some remote human populations do still survive in this way and I guess our fellow northern Europeans, the Sami people of Lapland, continue to sustain a way of life which has existed for countless centuries, a tribute to their determination to maintain such a unique lifestyle.

However, it isn't as if those Sami people are necessarily stuck in the past or somehow mired in a primitive mind set, oblivious to the technology of the twenty-first century. Whilst apparently remaining in that 'time warp' they have also taken to such things as the internet, like ducks to water. Come to think of it, I wouldn't be surprised if their connectivity in that respect is considerably better than ours! The simple fact is that they choose to live their lives in this way, maintaining tradition and accordingly facing the challenges that a nomadic lifestyle in those bleak northern latitudes demand but at the same time embracing the added bonus of access to the electronic world!

Thus, they are still heavily reliant upon reindeer meat and indeed skins too. This is perhaps in stark contrast to the 'needs' of those who continue to hunt in these islands. Hunting here has nothing to do with survival; instead it is all to do with enjoyment pure and simple. That such pursuits have always been a source of enjoyment, there can be little doubt. Tales of the hunting exploits of the ancient Kings and Queens of Scotland are legion. Great hunting parties would rampage across the landscape, their principal quarries deer which, at the end of the chase would eventually be corralled into areas from which they could not escape and where therefore, they were slaughtered on the spot. Not perhaps particularly sporting but effective!

Predictably, there followed great feasts, during which, with all the fare resulting from the chase, all manner of game and other imported varieties of food, would have tables groaning. The said feasts could last for days! And I daresay that those minions hired in order to make such events ever grander, would themselves have dined well off the scraps. No need for food banks there I guess! However, it is worth pointing out that most of what was hunted on such occasions was edible! The 'Big Five' as they used to be known, were the hart, the hind, the hare, the boar and the wolf. The wolf apart, all could be eaten. But as far as the wolf was concerned, it was universally more simply regarded as public enemy number one!

All over the world, the wolf has always been seen as man's main competitor for wild food. Worse, it has also been regarded as a major threat to human life itself. There are countless legends about wolves, one of the most familiar to us of course, the one that had the wolf's beady eyes trained upon Little Red Riding Hood! Yet there are those who insist that the wolf is nothing like the threat that history suggests. Nevertheless, the destruction of the wolf seems to have been a pre-occupation of Scottish monarchs over a considerable period of time with edicts frequently issued ordering their destruction.

However, the biggest problem created by the presence of wolves, seems to have been among the dead rather than among the live! Such was the instance of wolves digging up the bodies of the recently interred that, during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, islands were increasingly chosen for burials in order to thwart the grave robbing activities of wolves. There are of course, countless local legends, which tell of the fate of many a traveller in the wilds of Scotland, falling victim to the prowling packs of ravenous wolves.

In the mid-eighteenth century the 'final solution' appears to have been reached and the wolf finally disappeared. A certain Mr McQueen is said to have claimed the life of the last Scottish wolf in Atholl in 1743. However, there are perhaps, as many sites claimed for that final act as there are places where wolves entered folklore for an equally speculative range of other activities!

So, once the wolf had gone, what to chase now? The nearest British based relative of the wolf, the red fox, suddenly found itself to be in the hunting spotlight. And yet it wasn't until 1793 that the then Prince of Wales established the first pack of foxhounds in England. We are told that fox-hunting was developed as a necessary means of exterminating 'vermin' (i.e. Foxes). Yet such was the paucity of foxes to hunt that markets, at which foxes, imported from Continental Europe were sold in considerable numbers, were set up in the south of England in order that the newly established hunts had something to hunt! For a short time early in my adult life, I lived in rural Leicestershire, known for its addiction to the hunt. I soon learned that local hunts used to regularly rear litters of foxes a means of ensuring there would be foxes to hunt!

Hunts are perhaps, less to do with controlling foxes - this probably is the least efficient means of achieving that aim - that with the social occasion. The advent of large-scale sheep farming in Scotland upped the ante. Now, newly born lambs conveniently added a fresh source of food for wild foxes, often in areas where other prey would have been in short supply. Later, the rise of the sporting estate increased the flow of food with game and especially, a growing supply of succulent pheasants constantly added to the menu. We keep ushering into our countryside, more and more food for foxes...and other carnivores...and raptors and then complain when they strike to avail themselves of such culinary riches!

Some years ago, members of the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments, voted to outlaw fox hunting in so far as once a fox had been flushed by dogs, it had to be shot, not killed by the hounds. Yet in recent weeks, evidence has emerged that such conditions are not being applied. The lust in human beings to kill is something that I personally find hard to understand. However, I do understand that these days the fox has replaced the wolf as public enemy number one. It is all-out war, man versus fox. And while we continue to saturate the landscape with the likes of pheasants - the real numbers seem irrelevant; 35 million, 40 million, even 50 million at the latest count and far more than there are for instance, sparrows in the UK - the fox continues to win. With each passing year, the UK fox population increases remorselessly despite man's hand being set so firmly against it.

Successful breeding results from being well provisioned. So long as we keep putting more and more fox friendly food into our landscape, we should not be surprised that foxes are accordingly prospering. Even in our towns and cities and despite the introduction of allegedly fox-proof wheelie bins, the fox is doing very well indeed, thank you very much! It is obvious that we are wasting a lot of time and money to absolutely no avail!

Country View 1.12.16

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In recent weeks, there has been much owl 'conversation'. I am usually aware of such conversations during the month of October but this year, much of the vocalisation began as November hove into view. Of course, this is a crucial time for the relatively familiar tawny owl, the brown owl of children's stories. Indeed, in many respects this is the make or break time for the past year's crop of young tawnies as they try to find their way in an increasingly hostile world.

The challenge is brutal but simple - it is the battle for survival! It is not an easy challenge to meet as winter gradually seizes the landscape, for the first part of that challenge to these newcomers, is the establishment of a good feeding territory. The problem for the young birds is that such territories are mostly already occupied by adult owls, which as you might imagine, do not readily surrender their hard won territorial integrity. By and large, young tawnies are not feisty enough to unseat well-established adults and may therefore find themselves moved from pillar to post, finally having to settle in territories where food is perhaps scarce.

There have been times in which poor breeding years in communities of small rodents, the main source of food for tawny owls, has been poor. In years like that, the mortality rate of young owls can be alarmingly high, in some instances as high as eighty per cent. I certainly remember winters in which young tawny owls had to resort to seeking out road casualties such as pheasants and where they were still prevalent, rabbits, in order to survive. Unfortunately, tawny owls, equipped with eyes, which can see in very poor light conditions, are utterly dazzled by car headlights and thus all too often end up as casualties themselves.

However, there are some compensations to be enjoyed by re-locating 'town owls'. In short, in suburban and even urban areas where there are well-established human communities, the availability of the food - we are somewhat profligate with our waste food which as a consequence, encourages the presence of rodents. Indeed, it is often said that most of those folk who dwell in urban communities are never more than a few feet away from colonies of rats and house mice, whether they are aware of their presence or not! Neither of these pests is native to Britain but have made their way here courtesy of trade shipping. And, as winter sets in many such rodents seek shelter and succour indoors! That is precisely why many tawny owls have chosen to inhabit built up areas and why their hooting and screeching are commonplace sounds these days in towns and even in cities. the abundance of mature trees these days in both parks and gardens provides excellent nesting sites for such owls.

And of course, as the authors of children's books have long been aware, a tawny owl especially, is unusually humanoid in appearance with a round, blocky head, two large, forward facing eyes, which give it binocular vision and enables it to focus upon prey and judge distances accurately. The humanoid picture is completed by a hittle hooked beak that doubles for a nose and the prominent facial disc. Some might even regard them as cuddly. They are not! Indeed, tawny owls are doughty defenders of their young and the well-known bird photographer, Eric Hosking, certainly testified to that. He lost an eye when trying to photograph a tawny owl nest in which there was a family of young owlets. As far as the parent owls were concerned, he got too close and as a result one of them attacked him...with dire consequences!

If a tawny owl's eyesight is phenomenal in fading light, then consider the real size of its eyes. True, they look large but remove the bird's head plumage and compare their size with the bird's actual skull and they assume truly huge proportions. Were our eyes as large in proportion to the size of our skulls, as those of a tawny owl, they would be as large as tennis balls. Yet sight is just one of the major assets of this impressive predator. Add to those remarkable powers, the amazing hearing these owls have, enhanced by the bird's ears being offset, one marginally higher than the other, which enables it, even in total darkness, to pinpoint its potential victims very precisely.

And if the supreme eyesight and powers of hearing were not enough, the fine fringe of feathers on the edges of the tawny's wings, enable it to fly utterly silently. This then is a remarkably well equipped raptor. As winter sets in, despite this catalogue of hunting resources, the battle for survival is now joined by young owls, literally booted out of their parents' territory and forced to live entirely by their own wits.

Yet, tawny owls are among the great survivors, a description that certainly does not apply to what I consider to be our most beautiful owl. This week I snatched a glimpse - no more than that - of a barn owl, a white, almost ghoulish apparition, perched in a small local woodland. Sadly, this was a rare sighting. There was a time when barn owls were regularly seen hunting nearby rough grassland, typically at dusk. A hunting barn owl somehow bounces through the gloaming, its white underparts making it an easy bird to spot. But sadly, changing farming patterns appear to have undermined the barn owl's standing.

The barn owl's upper plumage is generally described as buff coloured, a description which I believe does little justice to this regal bird. In truth, the description of this element of the bird's plumage might just as justifiably be instead explained as 'gold and silver' such is the beauty of this enigmatic bird. With evidence pointing to a decline in barn owl numbers, once more, I have to question the heavy use of pesticides in the agricultural industry. I do not take issue with farmers on this but with the authorities who, it seems to me blithely give the nod to the widespread use of chemicals which I believe are putting at risk the entire ecosystem. Pollination is the vital key to the entire sequence of events from which emerge our crops and every element of our countryside.

It may well be therefore, that we are actually poisoning the very landscape from which we derive most of our food. Nature provides key messages, for instance, the widespread of DDT in the post war years, caused problems to many raptors with decreasing fertility occurring. The warning was heeded, the use of DDT was banned and the raptors breeding ability soon began to recover. In the natural chain of life, we are next in succession to the likes of raptors. So Nature provides warnings. The alarming reduction in so many species of our birds is surely in itself, a strong warning that all is not well.

Barn owl populations have been in decline all over Western Europe as agriculture has become ever more reliant upon such technologies. The rarity and the serious decline in even common bird populations across Britain is, I believe, a warning to us and the declining status of the barn owl in particular is a worrying part of this alarming trend. Their rarity also, incidentally, robs us of sightings of one of our most beautiful of all our native creatures.

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods