Pivotal Moment for Sun Lane Green Belt  


I’ve lost any sense of how long I’ve been standing here in this hedge.  The twine of barbed wire and bramble pressing into my thigh is marginally more bearable than the stench seeping out of the weighty poo bags that hang out in this same hedge. Time evaporates as I watch the first midges of the year stretch their wings and dance, backlit by the shards of early evening sunlight. It’s hypnotic. A sudden, abstract flash of white in the distance catches my eye and snatches me away from my daze. I’m on full alert. It’s blurred and masked by several other hedgerows but there’s no doubt in my mind. She’s here.


Moments later I see her floating towards me. Unaware of my presence, she gets closer and closer. Everything about her is sublime. Draped in an intricate coat befitting the royal court of Versailles with a presence more haunting than a Dickens novel, she’s gliding straight towards me. She’s so ghost-like I feel she could continue straight through my body and I’d feel nothing but a cool shiver. At the last second, no more that five metres away, she suddenly banks left and lands in a nearby oak. It’s the closest experience I’ve had with a wild barn owl.


As if being a barn owl wasn’t mythical and legendary enough, this particular female was ringed back in 2012. That makes her nearly double the average barn owl’s four-year life expectancy.


The neglected-looking field in front of me is a classic and all-too-rare hunting ground for barnies. The long, straw coloured grass helps to conceal this silent assassin as she glides effortlessly, listening for anything she can sink her talons into. With a stealth mode that makes Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt look like a bumbling amateur, you would think that barn owls have it easy, but you’d be wrong.


“From once being the most common species of owl in the UK, barn owls (Tyto alba) have undergone a long-term decline in numbers. This has mirrored the increase in agricultural intensity and landscape development, which has led in turn to a loss of roost and nesting sites and a reduction in the numbers of small mammals they feed on.” – Marie Jennings 1st June 2018 – http://www.bakerconsultants.co.uk/ecology/barn-owl-population-decline/  


“Landscape development”, that’s what is in the back of my mind as I watch this spectre fly over the borders of my West Yorkshire village, Burley in Wharfedale. She continues to hunt, oblivious to me, oblivious to my camera, oblivious to the fact that the green belt below her is earmarked for the “sustainable development” of 500 new homes. Sustainable Burley.co.uk is the developers’s domain name for this proposal, the irony is startling.


Five hundred new homes… a thought that taints and undermines the joy of watching such a thrilling bird. I continue to visit the field though, like a holiday romance you throw yourself deeper into despite of, in spite of, a growing realisation at the impending heartache. Just like those lovers abroad, I cannot help but immerse myself deeper into the Barn Owl’s world, waiting, watching, photographing whenever I can. Sometimes I can only spare ten minutes, sometimes I have several hours. Day after day, week by week. Sometimes I see her, most of the time I don’t.


The more I wait, the more I notice other goings-on within the same habitat. Roe deer nervously peering through the long grass at dawn, meadow pipits dancing in the late evening sunlight, lapwings performing impossible aerial displays and curlew letting rip with their unique, extraordinary calls that reverberate across the field boundaries.


If the barn owl was a holiday romance, the Curlew is that best friend next door that you can’t live without but didn’t realise until it was too late. Curlew are conservation red-listed bird, the highest priority there is, requiring “urgent action” (https://www.bto.org/our-science/publications/psob).


I recently gained an insight into the plight of this incredible bird after discovering ‘Curlew Moon’ by Mary Colwell. As Colwell walks from the West of Ireland to the East of England she reveals the alarming threats facing curlew. Falling population numbers is bad enough, in places it’s as bad as 80%, but it’s the stats around chick survival rates that hit you hard. With some areas seeing less than 1% of chicks making it off the ground. It’s stark stuff.


Curlews are believed to form life-breeding bonds with their partners. They are unquestionably loyal to their breeding sites, returning year after year to the same nesting spot over their 20-30 year life span (if they make it to adulthood that is). What will these birds do and where will they go when their faithful breeding ground abandons them?


The clash between our natural ecosystems and a genuine need for affordable housing is a modern day epic playing out across this land. It’s emotive, it’s uncomfortable and it’s far from black and white.


The latest twist in Burley’s own story is an eight day public inquiry after the government “called in” the green belt development proposal for review. The inquiry starts on the 14th May and will allow those for and against the plans to have their voices heard.


Since news of the review, interest in the natural inhabitants of this disputed green belt area has spiked. Local facebook groups regularly share photos and updates of wildlife encountered in and around the proposed site.


It’s inspiring to see so much enthusiasm for local wildlife. We’re so used to seeing big, heartbreaking campaigns for species like polar bears and turtles, and habitats like coral reefs. Yet, how many of the British public are aware of the plight facing our curlews? How many know the true value of our prehistoric peat bogs and the threats they face?


In praise of Colwell’s book Curlew Moon, Professor Tim Birkhead refers to the curlew as “one of our most iconic birds”. Is it? For those of who know the charismatic charm of the curlew, who are familiar with the folklore and mythology surrounding it, it’s hard to think of a more iconic bird. The reality sinks in though when Mary Colwell recounts giving a talk for a class of 17-18 year olds studying Agriculture and the Environment…


“No one, not one in a room of young people studying agriculture had heard of, or seen or heard a curlew.”


It leads me to wonder how many people knew about, or cared for, the plight of our curlew before the 500 homes were proposed, to question if some of the people shouting about the wildlife here are the same people decorating the hedgerows with poo bags? If the development plans had never come to pass would there still be this level of interest in the area? I hope so, and certainly in my day to day interactions here I’ve met many folk with a genuine love and concern for the wildlife. But the truth is, this is a handful of interactions in a burgeoning village and while a facebook group of 400 people feels like a wave, it is in fact just an echo chamber.


Maybe the real tragedy playing out here, and across the country, as green belt is divvied up between councils and developers, is not just the extent to which wildlife will be impacted by such developments but how few people will actually notice it’s true enormity. When the final cry of the curlew is heard but not recognised or acknowledged.


This issue is a true can of worms. There are many different points to get across, many questions to ask. We certainly need more housing, we need agriculture, we need green space, but what we need more than any of these things is to understand our part in nature and its part in us.

“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

Sir David Attenborough.

You can see more photos of wildlifeI’ve encountered in and around the proposed development site in my Sun Lane project page.

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