In our deep Devon valley on days when the heat is rising, only an occasional breeze stirs the tree tops and sends ripples running across the hay meadows. A buzzard wheeling lazily overhead catches a thermal to rise higher, without a flicker of wings. Now the first flush of summer flowers begin to fade, young grasshoppers are growing fast. The increasing volume of their chirping merging with the warmth. More butterflies take to the wing, Marbled Whites, Common Blue and Skippers flit from flower to flower, busily flying low over the dry grass. Here, the steep sided hills echo to any sudden sound, the bleat of a sheep or cry of a hunting peregrine. When walking past the old hay barn I can now hear the summer hissing of this season’s young barn owls. A soothing, soporific, repetitive snore, that increases as the hard light of day softens into evening haze. The sound urging their parents to go and find them a meal.

For nearly thirty years barn owls have nested here, haunting our fields by night and sometimes also early or late in the day. It depends on how loudly their hungry family is calling. Being at the top of the food chain, predatory birds are a useful indicator of the abundance of their prey. In years when small mammals do well, so too do the creatures that feed on them. In the natural world everything runs in a cycle. Some short, others much longer, indeed so long they can extend way beyond our own lifetime. At the other end of the scale many small lives can be so short they can appear and vanish in a matter of days, even hours.

A sudden noise by my feet alerts me to one of the most furious little lives. Betraying their existence with a high-pitched twittering, indeed even ultrasonic call, may seem reckless with so many predators about. But this is how one of our smallest mammals announce their presence, to communicate, attract a mate or ward off a threat. Coming from somewhere in the grass the squeaking is remarkably hard to pin point as they go about their frantically short lives. Shrews eat and sleep every twenty minutes or so, day in day out for just a single year, if they are lucky. I am glad to be human.

Andrew Cooper