One of the highlights of my two weeks in Northumberland was a trip to Woodhouses Bastle with one of the National Park rangers, Mark. Defended farm buildings dating back to the closing years of the time of the Border Reivers, bastle houses were something I really wanted to research while I was there, for a piece of writing I'm working on, and this was a beautiful example: intact and re-roofed, with a curving internal staircase (not original) thatched deeply by jackdaws with twigs and an upper window with an intimately domestic stone sink in the sill. And there were two barn owl boxes, installed by the National Park and clearly in recent use: the upper, flagged floor was thick with owl pellets, and I pocketed one, and some barn owl feathers, for two London children I know.
I'd arrived with tweezers, two identification books (Nick Baker's Nature Trackers Handbook and my childhood favourite, Animal Tracks and Signs) and a magnifying glass. But we swiftly got hands-on, dipping into the water for bones and pulling apart the hanks of dark, wet fur with our hands.
Field voles are barn owls' most usual prey, and the shape is right on three of the skulls we found in the pellet; I do wonder if the smaller one here might belong to a wood mouse, though – or perhaps just a juvenile?
lower jaws with their tiny molars, scapulas, tibias and fibias, humerus, vertebra, radius and ulna – even tiny, impossibly delicate ribs. The biggest surprise was a tiny snail shell, probably eaten by accident as the owl scooped up voles from long grass. No doubt there were microscopic foot bones in there, too, but we weren't aiming at 100% recovery. We took out as many bones as we felt inclined to, and left the rest.
I'll visit again and claim back one skull for my collection (I have one full and one partial fox skull, and a rat, all of which I recovered myself; two sheep skulls, a sheep spine and a pony vertebra, all found; and a crow's skull given to me as a present). But for me the value was in the exercise itself: the way it allowed us a window into the past, and into an unimaginable world. Out there, in the dark landscape, while I was sleeping, or cooking, or watching TV, a Northumbrian barn owl was hunting on silent wings: bringing death to the tussocky fields, and life to its chicks in the bastle house, as safe there now as the family who retreated behind its stout walls from the Border Reivers, four hundred years ago.