The secret life of animals is recorded by wildlife artist Robert E Fuller

On a bank of live screens next to my painting easel, a female tawny owl shuffles her body as low as she can get it over a clutch of three shiny white eggs.

The hidden cameras have captured the secret life of the animals who live nearby
The hidden cameras have captured the secret life of the animals who live nearby

On the screen next to her, a little owl settles momentarily on a branch, before flitting quickly out of sight again. Whilst on a third screen a kestrel pair greet one another enthusiastically.

On yet another screen I can see badger prints criss-crossing the muddy bank of a pond. I make a note to run through the footage from the previous night to watch these nocturnal visitors.

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The live images displayed on these screens are relayed directly from cameras hidden in woodland some distance from my art gallery and studio at Thixendale, North Yorkshire.

Wildlife artist Robert E Fuller created a pond to help encourage animals to the woodland

They are the result of a five-month project to be able to watch the comings and goings of wildlife there and livestream the action on my YouTube channel.

I had long been aware that this old ash wood was a haven for wildlife. There is a buzzard nest there and I had seen little owls flitting through the trees. A worn animal track running through the wood also told me that badgers and roe deer often visited.

So, in December last year, I finally began my project to place cameras and put bird boxes up in the wood so that I could capture footage of these creatures.

I began by digging a pond. Thixendale is a typical Yorkshire Wolds dry, chalk valley and there are few natural water sources here.

I knew that if I provided water, the wildlife would visit more regularly. With the pond in situ, I then spent some time working out where to place a camera overlooking it.

A roe deer helped with this. After stepping quietly up to drink from the pond, it stood up straight and I saw that its head was out of shot. Now I knew to change the angle of the camera for future wildlife visitors.

Next, I spent weeks in my workshop building nesting boxes for tawny owls, kestrels, barn owls, and a pair of little owls – all species I had seen in the woodland and hoped to encourage to nest here.

Each box was bespoke, designed specifically to suit the needs of each species and made from old tree stumps or branches. Inside each, I also hid cameras for my livestreams.

As I completed each box, I hoisted it into position, choosing different locations according to each species’ habits. This was no easy feat. My little owl box, for instance, weighed 150kgs and I had to winch it up using my car.

But it was in the perfect spot in the fork of an ash tree and sheltered from the wind. I got very excited, when just two days after placing the little owl box into position, a male little owl arrived to inspect it.

Little owls prefer open habitats and I had placed this one on the fringe of ash wood. As it turned out, this particular little owl is very feisty and I need not have worried about its ability to defend itself.

Although it didn’t choose to nest in my box, my cameras caught it seeing off a kestrel that dared land on the ‘porch’ of the box.

And this little owl also didn’t hesitate to attack a barn owl and the same kestrel when they explored another nest box I put up nearby.

I had built this second box in the hope of attracting a kestrel pair to nest in. Made from a huge hollow log, it sits in a majestic beech tree, the last in a line of three trees, the other two being ash trees, and accordingly named ‘Three Trees’.

As planned, the young male kestrel was the first to investigate the box and took an immediate liking to it. I watched as he returned day after day. He even scraped out a hollow dent in the bottom of the box to nest in.

But the young male was missing a mate and despite calling plaintively from the entrance of the nest box, no female appeared.

Instead, the little owl responded, making short shrift of the kestrel and dragging it from the nest box in one swift move. I was taken aback when I saw this on the live cameras. Little owls might be smaller than kestrels, but they really pack a punch!

But despite winning the box, the little owl was unable to persuade its mate to move in and over the next few days, the box stayed empty – until a female barn owl turned up.

This female was wearing an ID ring, and, after some investigation, it turned out I knew her. She was one of four rescued chicks I had fostered with wild owls in 2017. It was so exciting to see she had survived and was now living back close to the place where she grew up.

For a few days, it looked as though she was now the new owner of my box. Then the male kestrel came back with a mate, but when he discovered there was now a barn owl here he beat a hasty retreat. This seemed a shame, since the kestrel had a mate and could go on to breed in a box where I would be able to follow the action, and barn owl was alone.

After witnessing the extreme competition for my Three Trees Box, I decided I needed even more boxes and returned to my studio to start work on a new box.

Within days of placing this latest box, which I decided to name Ash Hollow since it is made from a large hollow ash trunk, the male kestrel was in it, this time with a new mate. So far, this pair seem very interested in the new box and I am hoping they will nest here.

Meanwhile, the female barn owl has returned to Three Trees, where I’ve been watching her sheltering from the recent rainstorms here at Thixendale. And as for the tawny owl, her nest box was the first to be completed at Ash Wood and so it seems fitting that it is the first to house a nesting pair of owls.

Fashioned from a natural hollow within an existing ash tree, I have named it Ash Hollow. Unlike the boxes made in my workshop it was made by placing a piece of tree bark across the lower part of the opening.

This means there is quite a steep ascent to the entrance of the box, which will make it safer for the tawny owl chicks once they hatch. These youngsters are notoriously adventurous and often try to hop out of the box before they can fly and I hope this will contain them.

I can’t wait to see them hatch next month and to see how all the other animals of Ash Wood fare.

Watch the tawny owl, kestrel and barn owl lives at Ash Wood on Robert’s YouTube Channel: Robert E Fuller