Close Encounters by Andrew Cooper
Like much of the country, we have five kinds of owl here in Devon, some common, some rare, all highly secretive. The Short-eared owl is a regular winter visitor in small numbers, while the Long-eared owl is relatively rare in the county. The Little owl was introduced to Britain in the 19th Century and has since spread far and wide. While the most familiar is the Tawny owl. Their hooting call is by far the most frequently heard and almost every wood seems to have its resident brown owl. But of all these birds, the one that gets everyone’s adrenaline flowing can appear suddenly and silently like a white apparition in the dark. The Barn owl's flight makes them appear to float over a meadow, expertly quartering the ground, turning, wheeling and diving. A pair regularly nest in our barn. Sometimes even in front of the camera I positioned over a decade ago to film a pair of kestrels.
Some of my most vivid wildlife memories are encounters with barn owls. Not all as heart racing as the first time I filmed one hunting across a field. A setting sun, dramatic views and this eerie white creature seemed to have read the script. But it does not always happen so easily.
Back in the early days of BBC Breakfast I used to do a monthly wildlife spot from the gardens of BBC Plymouth, talking to the presenters in London. A story about the decline of the barn owl was in the headlines that week. So I invited a local bird rescue organisation to bring an owl to the studios. The handler of a beautiful barn owl was rather shy, so did not want to appear on TV. Borrowing her glove with owl attached I waited for the countdown to go live. I explained the current plight of these birds with changing farm practises and the loss of nest sites in old barns. Then the Breakfast Show presenters were interested to know more about my new friend, still firmly gripping my hand. Luckily the Plymouth cameraman noticed the owl's claws had pierced the leather and drawn my blood. So discretely zoomed in for a tight head shot of its amazing face. The closing words of the item were too close for comfort. The presenter commented that I now looked very attached to the owl, but they and the viewers nationwide never knew just how much. And I still have the scars to prove it.