A note on a Hebridean boat trip

The boat is swinging like a skidding car as it makes it way down a channel lined by dark grey cliffs. I can hear the engine is gunning but progress is painfully slow. This is where currents meet, two powerful columns of water crashing and somersaulting together in a washing machine of briny muscle.

The surface of the water is taut, occasionally breaking into an angry swirl or rising into sharp spikes like the hundred black dorsal fins of fish stranded by the tide. The engine revs again and we are free, surging towards the turquoise stillness of the lagoon with its bright, white-shell sand and rocks holding waving seals.

Intrigued they slip their sausage bodies into the water, their heads bobbing to the surface closer to the boat, whiskers webbed with water and dark eyes you could almost drown in. They are mermaids with the faces of labradors.

Later we hit the swell of the sea proper. Greasy lumps of water shrug the boat into wallowing troughs, the spray hissing and leaping over 90ft cliffs.  We manoeuvre into a sea cave, the walls petrol-washed with star bursts of metallic ore that burst through a powdered mist of cormorant shit.

We shout to try and hear the echoes but the sea, always louder, shouts back.

Brock star

This was a country diary piece written for the Suffolk Magazine about Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s badger hide.

Dusk is falling as we arrive. Birds are bidding an explosive farewell to the light while owls ke-wick in greeting to the dark. They are marking a changing of the guard, that special time of day when the human order is replaced by the wildness of the night watch.

There are eight of us sitting in Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s badger hide, perched on padded seats, our faces glued to the large front windows. Even the four children, wound tight with a combination of anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a late night are no longer drumming their feet on the floorboards – their energy channelled into the gloom, trying to pull a badger from the sett with willpower alone.

The bank below us is a sandy moonscape of craters and holes, shelving down through thickets of scrub and trees to a glinting ribbon of stream. When everything is still the eye is drawn to the slightest movement and it’s not long before we’re watching our first visitors. A wood mouse, then a rat, scurry out from cover to snaffle some of the peanuts we scattered for the badgers. They sit on their haunches under a cluster of nettles, munching from tiny hands. The children squeal in delight.

Then, to gasps, comes the badger. I expected a bumbling old Brock. Curmudgeonly, slow, bull-dozing through brush; magnificent, yet lumpen. This creature is anything but. Sleek and elegant he jogs in little bursts, sucking up peanuts at a terrific speed, his pink tongue dabbing repeatedly at the ground. His face is a thing of absolute beauty. Thick wedges of black run from the neat triangles of his ears to a wet squash ball of nose. The trademark white stripe almost glows in the low light.

I feel my daughter’s hand slip into mine. She’s entranced, but also full of cold. She tries and fails to stifle a cough. The badger freezes. Stock-still he stares towards the hide, his eyes like the darkest of currants.  Our whispers fade to silence, a collective breath held.

The badger shakes his head and moves off again, hunger overcoming caution. I’ve heard that recent visitors to this hide were lucky enough to see 12 badgers, including several stocky cubs. Not tonight though, the low-level hubbub must be too much. This lone animal must be the bravest or the deafest in the sett. He ambles closer to us now, huffing and nosing the soil; heading towards a badger lollipop of honey slopped onto stick.

He never reaches it. A tawny owl swoops noisily into the clearing and the badger is off and running, his coat rippling around his legs like cuttlefish frills. Even in flight he retains an air of elegance, like a Victorian lady hitching up her skirt, greying lamb-tail bouncing cheerfully behind.

There is real power to his movement too. He’s like a locomotive charging down these well-trodden tracks, before popping out on the opposite bank of the stream some 30 seconds later. He looks back at us once and then is gone.

Our night watch is over.

Beaked angels

This was originally a country diary piece that appeared in the Suffolk Magazine

I am talking to wildlife photographer Jamie Hall about watching urban foxes in Norwich when he mentions the owls. Regular visitors, they arrive at 6pm every night, quartering the field and coming into land on old fence posts at the edge of his garden.

The pair are also surprisingly tolerant of humans, not reacting to Jamie’s flash bulb, and even allowing him to walk about as long as he stays behind the headlight beam of his car. “They’re here right now,” he says. “They’ll probably hang around until dawn.”

I look at the clock on the wall. It’s 6.05pm. By 6.07pm he’s sent me a picture of the back of his camera. Sitting side on, the barn owl’s face is lowered with only one dark eye visible, the whiteness of her lightly spotted chest contrasting with the sunburst of gold and graphite covering her back and folded wings. It is a beautiful shot.

Three days later and I am bumping down a muddy track to Jamie’s house. We’ve decided to watch the owls before heading out for the foxes. But I am late. The sun was already setting when I crawled over the Orwell Bridge 25 minutes ago and now I’m worried I’ve missed the show.

Arriving I can see that Jamie is already in position, sitting inside his car – a make shift bird hide for the night. He signals to me and as I clamber in next to him he points out two gnarled posts, jutting from long tussocky grass.

“There have been three of them here tonight,” he says without taking his eyes away from the posts. “I’ve never seen so many barn owls at the same time.”

There is heavy rain forecast for later, but at the moment the sky is perfectly clear, moonless and freckled with stars. A slight glow from Jamie’s house and a slick of light from distant towns illuminates the now empty perches. I glance at my phone. I know we’ve got a narrow window here before we have to make a move – a drive of more than an hour ahead of us.

When the first owl arrives, it seems almost to burst out of the night in front of us. It materialises with a silent flap of white, a beaked angel with a vole clutched in a yellow knuckle of talons. I make out the ink spray of black spots on the chest that suggest the owl’s a female before she moves off again. A slightly smaller barn owl, perhaps a male, follows behind, occasionally making half-hearted but acrobatic challenges for the food. They fly over the car and away towards the nest boxes at a church nearby.

I grin at Jamie. It wasn’t long ago that barn owls were really struggling here and the chances of seeing any in an evening were few and far between. In 2005 the county’s population fell to under 70 breeding pairs as a combination of Dutch elm disease and modern barns squeezed nesting opportunities. The launch of the Suffolk Community Barn Owl project, an initiative supported by Suffolk Wildlife Trust, has to date seen 1,800 barn owl boxes installed in the county. The project has left owl numbers at around 400 breeding pairs, the highest since records began.

It is gone 1am when we drive back into Suffolk and the rain is hammering down. Windscreen wipers barely make a difference and the wheels are dragging through deep, dark puddles that have formed at the side of the winding B roads. Suddenly Jamie stops and lowers my window. Hunkered in the branches of an oak, almost within touching distance, sits a barn owl stranded by the downpour, a lack of waterproofing the payment for the power of silent flight. He stares moodily at us with liquid black eyes, mottled caramel wings battened down and hunched against the weather. His face is the perfect feathered heart.