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Small mammals and birds of prey by Andrew Cooper

Here at Church Farm as elsewhere across the country, the short-tailed field vole comes high on the menu of some of our most beautiful predators. Not an enviable place to be. Yet this little creature has an importance out of all proportion to its size. They are the principle prey for barn owls and kestrels.

Birds of prey are useful indicators of a healthy environment. Plenty of predators means there must be rich pickings lower down the food chain because predators numbers are controlled by the availability of food. A fact helped on our farm by a special feature.  In the head of our valley a spring flows quietly out of the ground at the foot of a steep hill. Even in the hottest summers, the crystal clear, lime rich stream from deep underground is cool to dip your toes in and never dries. Yet in winter its temperature feels warm.  At a constant 10°C the flow never freezes. So what has this got to do with small mammals and birds of prey? Alongside the stream, grass and other watery weeds grow in abundance year round. Food for mice and voles. Also rich in water shrimps and insects. The sort of food that the rare water shrews likes to eat.

Small mammals are seldom seen, save for a streak darting across my path.  But a recent encounter was a timely reminder. Walking past the barn late one afternoon, a female kestrel was perched on top, watching me as I pretended to ignore her. I had seen her earlier carrying a hapless vole back to her young. But the distinctive snore of her close neighbours stopped me in my tracks. It was music to my ears - the first sound of young barn owls snoring this season.  Not a sign of sleeping but the persistent call they make when urging their parents to feed them. I always look forward to first seeing them curiously peering out of the barn.

Andrew Cooper