Twilight world reveals valley full of life despite dry start to spring

Wildlife Artist Robert Fuller lets out a Barn Owl out of its box at Thixendale.
Wildlife Artist Robert Fuller lets out a Barn Owl out of its box at Thixendale.
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Parts of Yorkshire have been declared a drought zone and there has been a lot in the news about the impact that this has on farming and wildlife.

I live in Thixendale on the Yorkshire Wolds, which is characterised by dry valleys punctuated with dew ponds which are a real life source for the local wildlife which rely on them. All nature benefits from warm sunny days but drought conditions can be damaging for many species from the largest trees to the smallest insect. There is a real knock-on effect from one species to another as they depend on one another for food and shelter. It’s not a killer like the extreme cold, but it puts everything under pressure and makes for a poor breeding season.

I’ve recently been involved in a court case about badger baiting. But while I feel like I have been talking about badgers a lot of late I haven’t actually seen a live one all winter. The clocks going forward marked the beginning of my badger watching year. And with the drought conditions in mind, I decided to visit the sett near my gallery one evening to see how they had been affected. Badger cubs are born in February, but don’t come above ground until at least mid April or the beginning of May. I wondered how active the sett was in light of the dry weather.

Badgers rely on worms as their main food source. But worms go deep underground in dry periods, so I took some dog biscuits and water with me, thinking that the clan might appreciate this boost after the long winter, followed by the dry spring.

As I headed off I heard the sharp call of a tree creeper and looked across to see a pair looking for a safe place to roost.

The Wolds are usually windy but there wasn’t a breath of air that evening. The sun had already set but the dusky light was still enough to see by.

I always love this transition from day to night because you get the best of both worlds, being able to see and hear diurnal and nocturnal birds and animals in a short period of time.

In spite of the dryness, the valley rang out with the sounds of spring. In the distance and I could hear the “yaffaling” call of a green woodpecker, the haunting ring of a curlew and the rasping wing beats of a male lapwing and the extraordinary call it makes as it performs its dare-devil display flight. All these birds, which rely on worms and insects, need to be in tip-top condition for egg laying.

Curlew and lapwing lay large eggs for their body size so this is especially important for them.

Pheasants croaked out as they went up to roost and blackbirds made that “chinking” call in the hedgerow below as they settled down for the night.

I could hear the semi-mechanical call of a red legged partridge and wished it was a grey partridge, something I haven’t seen in this valley for years. Just as the sounds began to fade I heard a hoot from a tawny owl announcing that the night watch had taken over.

I came to the sett and just 50 yards away saw a badger through my binoculars. It was scenting the air, its nose just emerging from the entrance hole. It slowly ambled out and sat down for a scratch. I tried to get a little closer, making as little sound as possible, but it was so still I could hear my leather boots creaking.

Then a clattering of wings resounded as a flock of wood pigeons broke cover and the badger disappeared back down its hole.

I used this natural distraction to quicken my step and get even closer. I was just 20 yards away from the sett when the badger reappeared, closely followed by another. I could hear their muttering calls and watched as they began grooming each other.

A barn owl broke the silence with its eerie screech and I returned the call. Out of the gloom it appeared like a ghost, swirling above me as I called out. It was a magical moment. The stars were twinkling, the moon was now up and the badgers were looking straight at me, their white facial blazes prominent in the twilight.

The owl twirled out of the sky like a sycamore key and landed on a fence post next to me. I froze as it looked me up and down before flying off and landing in a tree above the badgers. After the severe winter of 2010, barn owls have repopulated this valley and it’s good to see them back.

By now there was a chill in the air and a frost was forecast. I headed home. It was quite dark now. I enjoy walking in the dark. It heightens my sense of hearing. I saw a pheasant roosting, silhouetted in the sky. I could hear rival tawny owls calling to one another. Then a thump of a rabbit’s back legs warned the rest of the warren of my presence.

At the bottom of the hill from my gallery I saw a little owl sitting on a fence post by torchlight on the look out for insects or worms, or if it is really lucky, a shrew or vole. I shone my torch up into the trees and spotted a tawny owl sitting in front of its nest box and hoped that they were sitting on eggs. I had only been out of the house for 40 minutes but I had seen two badgers, three species of owl and so much more – a great reward in return for my gesture of a few dog biscuits and water for the badgers.

All seemed well in this valley at the moment in spite of the warnings about the drought from experts. The heat wave was brought to an abrupt end by the four inches of snow that we had on the Wolds. This will have provided much-needed water for the landscape. Although the chiff chaffs, the first of our summer migrants who had just arrived here to bask in the heat wave after their long journey from Africa, will have been shocked to say the least by this dramatic turn in the weather.

Robert Fuller Gallery, Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale 01759 368 355.