We have passed the winter solstice so the days are slowly beginning to lengthen. The farmer always says that local folklore says, 'as the days lengthen the storm strengthens.' Let's fervently hope that he is wrong.
Bats have gone into hibernation - although where on the farm they over-winter we have no idea. Each Spring they reappear in small numbers, so they must sleep the winter out somewhere near. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, tend to make for the hay barn and the warmth of a covering of sweet-smelling hay. There they stay until the weather warms up - and hopefully they have enough fat layers on them to survive.
But for owls this seems to be THE time of year. When the farmer takes his last walk with Tess at night our Scots pines are full of owl conversations. There are tawny owls in a barn across the field - they breed there every year and have done for years; there are barn owls close by. Our neighbour has a barn owl box in one of his barns and we know they brought off two babies last year, although whether they survived our cruel winter we don't know. What I do know is that if we drive up the lane in the dark, we almost always seen the barn owl's ghostly form gliding across the lane. As for little owls, we always have plenty of those around. They are diurnal to some extent and any time you care to walk down the yard and into the pasture you may well hear the alarm call of a little owl - usually in the same holly bush. And there are several fence posts which are favourite roosts. Last winter, in the cruelest weather, a little owl spent a large part of each day on a gate post watching out for any road kill to provide a meal.
They all make a rather melancholy sound - in fact Ronald Blythe tells us that Byron thought there was only one thing sadder than the call of an owl, and that was the phrase ' I told you so!'
Shakespeare called the owl 'the fatal bellman' in Macbeth. But, of course, their voices are not sad and doom-laden at all - they are the most communicative of birds. And to add to that the Tudor musician used to sing about them, saying: 'Thy note, that forth so freely rolls - with shrill command the mouse controls.
So spare a thought this Christmas for the poor little mouse - victim of owls and farm cats, of necessity searching in the hedge bottom for something tasty to eat rather than becoming something tasty to eat himself. Enjoy the run-up to Christmas day - and don't forget Carols from Kings tomorrow evening - my favourite programme of the whole Christmas on TV.