When we first moved to East Challow in July 2015, it was characterised by 2 animals. With Lambourn nearby and the Uffington White Horse just down the road, the place felt imbued with the spirit of the horse.
The other animal interested me even more, with its associations with wisdom, darkness and the underworld: the owl. It was our closest neighbour and seemed to live in the minuscule amount of scrubland next to us, hooting practically down the chimney. I heard it every night and even saw it once or twice on my summer evening walks, swooping so close over my head that I felt the wind displaced by its wings.
We live on a new development – a brownfield site I am glad to say – developed out of the old Nalder and Nalder site – a manufacturer of threshers and other agricultural equipment. It’s well developed or so we felt, having seen quite a lot of overcrowded housing developments in our search to buy. However the Wantage area is earmarked as part of the Science Vale, for extensive development. 20,000 new homes are being built and, although I have not pored over the plans, walking around the area it becomes quite clear that much of this development is on green field sites, and is going up fast. The area has changed quite extensively since we moved in and one of the casualties it would seem is our Challow owl. It’s a guess – based on observation – that the hunting grounds that were intact just 18 months ago, are less viable and the owl has had to move on. The term refugee owl came to mind last night – how do owl communities deal with immigrant owls- I wondered as I lay listening, again, last night, to the silence where once there was the neighbourhood hooting.
My husband says that owls do move around. And occasionally I do hear the hoot – far off now – but rare. I could be wrong. I joined BBOWT because they wrote to me about protecting owls, thinking I should leave this to the experts and assuage my nagging worry that way. But the fact remains – where once we had an owl as a neighbour, now we do not.
Politically this is interesting. Living as I do in a South East England which is groaning with overpopulation of humans I am deeply unsure as to whose politics really speaks for non-human life. The more kind hearted and humanitarian we are, the more we will need to whack up housing. Which side in the Brexit vote, for example, had my owl’s interests at stake?
I am becoming more convinced that very local action is what really counts and that it needs to be up to us. Excuses, excuses – I find this is hampered by having a full on full time job and a family and although I had intended to get involved in the local planning group this felt more challenging when push came to shove on a January evening after work. And then what? If I can live in a new build why would I want to stop others? What hypocrisy! There is hope though, if we apply Permaculture principles – especially the idea that it is the contact at the boundary point – the edge – between 2 ecosystems (or people) that is the most fertile. Maybe by simply getting stuck in and having conversations – by shrinking my working life to make space for community life – maybe we can find ways of finding both and rather than the either or I am seeing at the moment.
In the meantime it seems the owl won’t leave me alone. It’s been many months now – and the silent nights still keep me up with their deafening absence of owl hoots. In the end, I am part of our landscape, and maybe, in the end, after all, I am that owl.