My Heart Stopping Encounter with a Barn Owl.
Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.
January is named after the two headed god of vigil. Janus. One head looks back on the old year while the other looks forward to the next. It is the time when the icy cold grip of winter takes over the countryside and this year is exceptionally cold. The bitter cold easterly winds can turn a normally pleasant stroll into an endurance exercise. Significant falls of snow can turn the landscape into an uninviting white desert, or a fascinating place to explore,depending on your view. Personally I take the latter view , I love to go out in virgin snow to see what animals have been abroad during the early hours. Once you are familiar with the tracks of birds and animals then it is possible to tell which creature has been out and about without actually seeing the creature concerned. With a little practice it is possible to distinguish between the tracks of rabbits, badgers, foxes, hares, deer, pheasants, ducks etc.
It is a misconception that squirrels hibernate in winter and they can often be seen even in the snow foraging for food they hid during the autumn. They are however, more sluggish in their movements and will return to the dray for up to 2 days when they have had their fill.
I have on occasion to be out and about in the countryside during the hours of darkness at this time of the year, checking that all is well at the lake. The countryside as one can imagine is completely different in appearance and atmosphere in the dark. However, I am so familiar with the location that any shape or form that should not be there sticks out easily and instantly puts me aware.
Darkness also heightens the senses and sound carries far in the silence of the night. Tawny owls are clearly audible at present calling to each other defying the cruel cold. Some calls from animals of the night are not as soothing. The screech of the barn owl for instance can be unnerving. But the call from a vixen is one of the most unearthly sounds you are likely to encounter during the hours of darkness.This call can put fear into the heart of anyone unfamiliar with it. A volley of vulpine barks in the quietness of the night is one you are unlikely to forget.
A frozen pathway with a dusting of snow
The reason for this frenzied yelping is to attract a dog fox. Unlike many animals the season of a vixen lasts only for 2-3 days after this the chance of mating has gone. Locally January is the prime time for vixens' season. Once she has conceived she will carry her off spring for around 53 days. The peak time for the birth being late March or early April. Once the dog fox has mated he will start to roam more and more extending his normal range in the hope of finding other vixens he can mate with.
The average litter size is 4-6 cubs. Studies have revealed that only 2 cubs per litter will survive their first winter. They have also revealed that the first winter mortality rate is as high as 80% in some areas of the country. The cubs are born in a burrow called a den or earth. However, any secure crevice will suffice, such as a large drain pipe, hollow tree stumps and even under sheds in urban areas.
For the first month of their lives the cubs rely entirely on their mother's milk. When they are young she will lie down in order for them to suckle. As the cubs get bigger she tends to stand while they suckle allowing enough space for the cubs to feed. Her supply of milk eventually dries up and by the time the cubs are six months old they will rely more and more on solid food.
By the time thy emerge from the earth they resemble the adults in general appearance although their coats are lighter. The entrance of the burrow is around 20cm in diameter.
It is my opinion that having the chance to see a vixen with her cubs in the spring sunshine is one of the most beautiful sights the English countryside has to offer.