The Thurlows

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Nature Notes 2018

February 2018: To-wit To-what?

There is a madrigal by the seventeenth-century composer, Thomas Vautor, called ‘Sweet Suffolk Owl’, which begins:

Sweet Suffolk owl, so trimly dight
With feathers, like a lady bright;
Thou sing'st alone, sitting by night,
'To whit! To whoo!'

The one I heard the other night along the Temple End Road, sounded more like a quavering ooooooo, but never mind.  In truth, we all see and hear what we want to with owls.  With the possible exception of penguins, they are the most easily humanised of all birds.  The combination of the upright stance on two legs, the soft tubby body-shape, large heads, flat faces, big round eyes and the steady gaze make them perfect material for the soft toys department.  Add their magical ability to see in the dark, the extraordinarily acute hearing, their other-worldly cries and silent flight, and you can see how perfectly adapted they are as a receptacle into which we project a whole range of human affections and fears. They have accordingly featured in fables from the time of Aesop onwards and provide such favourite characters in children’s stories as Old Brown in Beatrix Potter, the (dyslexic) Wol in A.A. Milne, Wise Owl in Alison Uttley, and most recently the snowy owl, Hedwig, in J.K. Rowling.  But they also play darker symbolic roles in many of the world’s myths and legends: ‘an abomination’ according to the Bible, Shakespeare’s ‘fatal bellman’, and ‘birds of omen dark and foul’ for Sir Walter Scott.  But how can they be the stuff both of innocent fancies and of nightmares?   How can the proverbial ‘wise owl’ also serve as the dread portent of death and disaster?

It’s all down to some very special biological adaptations that have accidentally given rise to these cultural perceptions. Owls are neither wise nor ominous by constitution, but are superbly equipped predators.  Those ‘flat faces’ are really large facial discs shaped to funnel to their super-sensitive ears the faintest sounds made by invisible scurrying rodents.  A tawny owl also has an exceptional spatial memory to enable it to navigate through familiar woodlands in almost pitch darkness; and in order to help with night vision their eyes are so large that they occupy all the space in the eye-sockets – they can’t therefore swivel their eyes but can compensate by rotating their heads by up to 270 degrees.   Their flight feathers have special baffles at the forward edge to muffle the sound of their wings and give them the advantage of surprise.  And so on, every detail serving a purpose.  The precision and efficacy of these adaptations is astonishing – and quite reason enough to prompt a sense of wonder… or even inspire a madrigal.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
9 February 2018


January 2018

Staverton Thicks is a relict fragment of ancient forest near Butley on the Suffolk coast.  It’s like a child’s idea of a haunted wood, straight out of one of Grimm’s fairy stories as illustrated by Arthur Rackham, full of mysteries and surprises – with a hint of menace too.  There are huge gnarled oaks there and some of the tallest hollies in Britain, all tangled together in a wonderful profusion of trunks and branches. It’s quite dark in places, but there are also sunny glades where some forest giant has crashed to the ground and torn a rent in the dense canopy.  Trees lie where they fall, decaying undisturbed, and you have to pick your way over and round them. It’s easy to lose one’s sense of direction, but there is also a sense of glorious seclusion and tranquillity, even though you are never more than half a mile from the surrounding tracks.   You can imagine yourself deep in one the great oak-wood forests that once graced this country and are so much a part of our folklore and history –  Sherwood, Arden, Epping.  It’s all totally unmanaged, untidied and unspoiled – so of course a haven for wildlife of all kinds.

Insects abound in the rotting timber, and these in turn attract woodpeckers, tits and tree creepers.  Redstarts and flycatchers breed here, so do tawny owls, and on one memorable spring day I even heard the fugitive, bell-like song of a golden oriole from somewhere in the upper branches.  I never saw or heard it again, alas, so it must have been a passing migrant, but it seemed very much in place in this secret wilderness. I also found some hawfinch in the Thicks recently and it’s worth looking for those in the woods round Thurlow too, since there has been an invasion of these large finches from central Europe into southern England this year.   Hawfinches are built rather like little parrots, bull-headed and with massive bills capable of cracking open the hardest kernels of stone-fruits.  They’ve been described as ‘flying nutcrackers’.  They are quite colourful too – with buffy breasts and blackis-blue wings broken by a bold white wing bar; but they are very shy and wary birds and are most likely to be seen suddenly flying up from the forest floor, emitting a volley of explosive and metallic tick calls.

The history of the Staverton Thicks is something of a mystery, but I like to believe the story that the land was once farmed by the monks of Boyton Priory, who at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 were told that they could take just one last crop from the land.  So … they planted acorns. Now, that’s real forward thinking for you.  Don’t believe governments who say they will replace the old woods they are clearing to build motorways and high-speed rail links with new trees.  You can’t create old trees any more than you can make old friends.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage

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