Words and pictures by Mat Bingham
For a few years my granddad lived in a care home after becoming too unwell to be at home. In July last year, he passed away. When the nest egg he had accumulated through his working life ran out, with reluctance, we had to sell the house he had so proudly built to fund his care. Shortly after the sale went through, the purchasers demolished his beautiful garden and pulled down the house to make way for a soulless modern single story orange brick bungalow with its regimental lawn and oversized garage. The only tangible thing we had left of him was 5 acres of agricultural land in the heart of the fens where he had always spent his life. We decided to keep the land in his memory rather than sell it.
A few months later fate then dealt us an expected hand, when Dad died suddenly leaving our family trying to put together the pieces of our lives. When you lose someone close to you it’s there in your mind from the moment you wake to the moment you sleep. I spent some time at home with mum, trying to comfort and distract her. One day as we headed into town along the subsiding fen road and beside the local river known as ‘the cut’, a white flash above the field that now belonged to us vied for my attention. Correcting my steering, I had a long look at the white shape that had caught my eye. At noon in the winter sunshine hunting over our field was a barn owl.
Returning later that day, I stopped the car next to the field to get a better look at the surroundings. About one hundred meters from the field under a mass of ivy, an old Nissan hut and barn were visible. I remembered someone telling me it belonged to my granddad’s brother but it didn’t look as if it had been used for quite some time. At dusk i took a walk to investigate the barn. It had rained and the fen soil formed heavy clods underfoot making walking hard work. Trying to be as quiet as possible i approached the barn not sure of where the door was located as it wasn’t visible from the road.
The structure was brick built with an asbestos roof and after circling it, i was to find that the gable end facing away from the road was completely open with no doors. My reactions were not quick enough to do anything other than instinctively duck as a white ghost flew out from the barn and towards me, correcting its course at the last moment to avoid collision. Feeling guilty i left, leaving the owl to roost if it so wished. I could see the barn owl circling around me in a wide lazy circle before it settled on a post. I made up my mind to leave it alone and come back at dawn the following day to see if it would be out quartering over the fields.
I rose before the sun and headed out in the half light, feeling the dampness in the air and gradually the sun came up shrouded in mist. I thought the owl would most likely be roosting given the dampness – from what i had read, barn owls didn’t like getting wet or hunting in these conditions – but as i was up and at the field, i made my way way to the edge of the hedge line to give me some cover and stood waiting to see if he was about. A little more than five minutes after arriving at the field margin, the barn owl drifted over the road and landed close to where i stood on the same post as the night before. I could see no rings on its feet and from its size guessed it was a young male, although it was hard to tell without closer inspection of its markings. Something caught his attention as he shifted his gaze, silently he dropped into the scrub and i lost sight of him. Seconds later he rose gracefully and landed back on the post with nothing to show for the hunt. His feathers looked soaked and to be out looking for food in this weather i assumed he hadn’t caught anything all night. After staying on the post for fifteen minutes he gave up hunting and flew along the hedge line directly overhead and back to the barn.
Over the following days i couldn’t forget about the experience and i decided that watching and photographing this barn owl would be a fantastic project. When at home with mum i could visit him at dawn and dusk, his hunting territory was a few hundred meters from our house. I called to see my granddad’s brother and told him that his barn had a lodger and he agreed to avoid disturbing the owl. It looked as though i had a project and the barn owl had a home where he could remain untroubled. My granddad appeared to have left my family something much more than just a piece of land.