Mr Brooks and the bally Barn owls

Mr Brooks and the bally Barn owls

Mr Brooks finally gets his barn owlI first met Mr Brooks on the second day of my new job with the Kentish Stour Partnership way back in 2009. He instructed me as I teetered on top of a ladder in his cattle barn trying to put a number disk on the side of his barn owl box which would allow us to monitor it’s progress.

“Do you know one end of a drill from another?” he called in his upper class voice. “Next time bring a man.”  I felt suitably slighted.


Mr Brooks and I strike a deal.

A few weeks later he wanted a second box put up. I agreed this was a good idea but there would be a charge for installing the box. Mr Brooks was aghast. “I don’t deal in money,” he said “We barter.” Ah, now he was talking my language.  A box, I told him, would cost him either a bottle of whisky, a goose for Christmas or a brace of trout from his trout pond. Once I got off the phone I was told off by my boss who suggested that, as we sat next to Trading Standards, this was not the way we should be doing business.




I  returned to his land with a box and three men but went up the ladder myself to install it. Mr Brooks, true to his word, appeared in full fly fishing gear and tried for those trout but with no luck.

Years passed, the barn owls refused to take up residence. Instead stock doves moved in,

no I won't ring it's bally neck

A beautiful stock dove.

filling the box with their twiggy nests. Me and the professional ringers would extract the birds. “Don’t ring their bally legs, ring their bally necks.” Mr Brooks called in the background. We refused.

Then, yesterday, I returned. We climbed the ladder expecting to find the twiggy nests once again but, no. Instead we found a barn owl and three fair sized chicks. Mr Brooks, now in his eighties, has his barn owls at last and I, for one, couldn’t be happier for him.  I am still waiting for the trout.  Mr brooks investigates his bird


A Year in the Life of an Environmental Consultant – July 2016

July 2016 – Working in partnership

Carol and Sue Buckingham examine divided sedge

Carol and Sue Buckingham examine divided sedge

July began with an excellent day of survey work alongside County Recorder, Sue Buckingham on the Ash Levels, to the East of Canterbury in Kent. The Ash Level Feed Dyke is one of the most botanically rich drainage dykes managed by the River Stour Internal Drainage Board and therefore it is important to get management right to ensure that rare plants can flourish. Carol Donaldson surveyed the watercourse in 2010 and was keen to return to see how changes in management had affected the channel. Sue’s expert knowledge helped to identify a range of uncommon plants such as divided sedge, rootless duckweed and tubular water dropwort.

tubular water dropwort

Carol and Sue Buckingham examine divided sedge

Carol J Donaldson Associates have worked hard to forge links with other conservation organisations and submit all records to the British Trust for Ornithology and Kent and Medway Biological Record Centre. “Working with Sue Buckingham and Kent Field Club is good for everyone.” said Carol. “The Internal Drainage Board benefit from specialist recording skills and the recorders get contact with landowners and access to areas of land away from public rights of way.” This mutually beneficial partnership allowed Kent Field Club to survey another IDB channel in July and discover several plants of tufted sedge (Carex elata) which had not previously been recorded in this area.



bird ringer and kestrel copyright Ralph Connolly

Another mutually beneficial partnership has been formed with Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership. We volunteered our time in July to help with the barn owl ringing programme , visiting some of the many boxes installed by the partnership across East Kent. The day provided an insight into the life and death game sometimes played out unseen. We were amazed to discover two barn owls feeding on the remains of recently predated kestrel chicks. It was an extraordinary example of the food chain in action. Adult kestrels are feisty birds and the predated chicks were almost full grown. We can only speculate that this was a chance encounter where two barn owls had investigated the box and happened upon the chicks while the parent was away hunting.

presentation for Rhino Plant

Finally this month we conducted a training day for Rhino Plant operators on behalf of the River Stour Internal Drainage Board. The day was designed to give the operators who manage the drainage channels an insight into the survey work conducted on the marshes and an understanding of why decisions are made to change the way the ditches are cut and de-silted. It was an opportunity for both sides to learn about each others roles in maintaining the channels and work together towards getting a good balance between the needs of drainage and the needs of wildlife

In praise of the abnormal


copyright Edd Deane, Swafham, England.

Back at my parents for Valentine weekend was never going to be easy. I escaped on Sunday afternoon for a walk in the woods. My childhood wood. The one which had always symbolised wilderness and magic and adventure to me because it was the only one I could get to undetected by my parents.

I avoided the crowds of the Country Park and headed ‘off piste’ to lean my back against a many branched oak tree and blend and be still and become part of nature, not apart from it.

A friend told me recently that he too felt this need to separate himself from people, to head for the countryside and be alone. This, he told me, made him, ‘not normal.’ I had thought on this. Was I also not normal? Probably, yes. After all, few women of my age were spending Valentine’s afternoon snuggled up to an oak tree in a wood. Clearly, by this benchmark, I was crazy but, to my mind, wishing to be surrounded by people 24/7 was unthinkable, that was simply insanity!

A blackbird dashed through the wood in alarm pursued by a sparrowhawk, twisting on its side, flashing its pale plumaged undercarriage. Neither of them noticed me. The sparrowhawk missed, the blackbird crashed into scrub. I saw the path the hawk took by the wave of crows rising to mob it.

It was growing dark. I knew the parents would worry. I headed back, taking the less used path beside the derelict hospital.

A barn owl hunted the rough grass, luminous and long winged in the gathering gloom. I hid in the trees watching it quarter the grass, legs hanging low, listening, listening to the shrews, that I too could hear. Out here alone, silent, abnormal and happy to be so.

A Close Encounter

This is how I normally see barn owls. photo - Ralph Connolly

This is how I normally see barn owls.
photo – Ralph Connolly

Tonight I walked across the RSPB Northward Hill Reserve, where I lived for several years. Enjoying the somehow illicit pleasure of a night time visit. I had come to see the crow roost, to experience the thrill of 4000 birds spiralling over head, but the secret ways I had once known to the roost had long since become a tangle of bramble.

Still the main reserve was open. I walked across the secretive, after dark world, spotting a silhouette of a roosting pheasant, a bulky, long-tailed blob doing a poor job of hiding in a tree. The marshes opened out below me, a watery fenland of flooded fields.

The hide was pitch black but I found the bench and the window catch and poured a hot drink from my flask. Widgeon piped, the full moon stippled the water, shining it’s torch beam onto the wrinkled skin of the surface. I took a sip of hot chocolate, the darkness edged in across the marshes.

A barn owl appeared. For a moment in hovered in front of the hide window, maybe mistaking it for a barn or a box where it could spend the night. Angel winged, black eyed, it seemed suspended in the air only a foot from my face.

A chill of fear ran through me, that moment in the dark when you are brought back to the primeval root of things and realise that you are too close to a fellow predator.

I knew barn owls. I spent the summer plucking them from boxes so they could be ringed. I knew the strength of those clawed feet, the damage they could inflict. For a moment I thought it would land, on the ledge, inches from my face. For a moment it thought the same. It was a second of indecision as it tried to make out what creature those two eyes, sandwiched between hat and scarf, gazing out of the dark box, belonged to.

It realised it’s mistake in time and wheeled away to land on a fence post. We both paused to recover from our shock and then it was gone, across the flood, searching for voles to get it through the cold night ahead.

How not to tackle a barn owl


looking happier than the barn owl
credit – Jenny Cotterill

Rugby tackled a barn owl to the floor last week, she rolled on her back, firing her claws at me, clicking her beak.  I grabbed her ankles and pinned her wings to her sides, coming out of the encounter better than my volunteer Chris who had come a cropper with her mate and now had blood running down his hand.


injured but undaunted, volunteer Chris Bailes

Most boxes this year have been full of stock doves much to the dismay of one of our most colourful landowners who had watched in growing agitation as we carefully placed a ring around the chicks legs.

“I don’t want bally stock doves,” he protested. “Don’t ring its leg, ring its neck!”

That wasn’t about to happen, but the stock doves are a problem, seemingly evicting the owls and, like the worst squatters, re-decorating the interior of their homes with unsightly piles of twigs upon which no barn owl wants to sit.

The feisty owls we caught last week are sitting on three eggs, offering a little hope for the future.

A bird in the hand

chick ringing

Today felt like the start of the summer to me. Not only had the solstice passed but, after a winter of working in the office I was finally back out in the field. It was the start of barn owl ringing season, a slightly late start. The long winter and late spring has not served England’s barn owls well and many of the nest boxes occupied by successive generations of owls are rumoured to be empty. Those birds that have survived are in poor condition and have started the whole loving and breeding cycle late.

Out on the marshes we navigate our way through the network of field ditches to a triangular box perced on top of a telegraph pole. My volunteers have been dotting the countryside with these boxes for many years and they make a great alternative to the old barns that the birds would have traditionally nested in.

“That’s close enough,” say Jan who is our chief bird ringer. I am slightly in awe of Jan and her compatriot Jane they are the sort of can do, no nonsense women I aspire to be,  ornithological Barbara Woodhouses. I am simply not cool enough but I admire them none the less.

One of our volunteers inches out of the Landrover carrying a giant yellow cutip, he edges towards the box and stuffs the cutip into the hole. Quarry held tight we speed across and unload ladders. Jane climbs up, cautiously opens the box door and peers inside. Caution is wise, I have seen barn owl claws pierce through a hand. Jane emerges with a flapping adult barn owl, a bird that manages to be all air and talons at the same time, light and death combined.

jane with adult female

Once down on the ground, Jane adjusts her grip and the bird falls asleep in her hand, as barn owls are want to do when out of the box and in the daylight. This birds seemingly lack of fear may be down to the fact that it has a distant memory of this experience. It already has a ring attached to its leg. We make a note of the number and the fact that it has 3 very small chicks in the box.

“Too small to ring,” Jane declares, “Best get it back in there as soon as possible.”

back up the ladder she pops the bird back in the box and we discretly make our exit. The bird stays put, not overly spooked and too much invested in her young to leave them.

At a safe distance we check the ring number against our records. This bird has been caught twice before and has made a journey this spring across the marshes from a box 6km away, a fair way for a barn owl which generally doesn’t travel much beyond the area where it was born.

“Maybe she lost her mate,” Jan speculates, “and travelled in search of another.”

We can only guess at the detail of the birds lives, the rings give us a tiny glimpse into these beautiful creatures, we can tell where they go, how long they live, how many chicks they have. These feed into the bigger picture analysed by the barn owl conservation trust on the health of barn owls nationally and ultimately the health of our countryside. But, most of the birds we ring as babies are never recaptured, they simply melt into the fields and hedges, their lives and deaths unrecorded.

As we head off to our next box it is good to know that despite the cold spring the barn owls are still there, still hunting, still loving, still breeding.

chislet chick