Midsommer Murders: Nature Notes From Tom Breheny

By the side of Blackford Pond I watched a tiny field vole scoot across the path from the shadow of the wall onto the sunny banking opposite, its movement reminding me of a clockwork mouse.

Field Vole
Field Vole


I levelled with the creature as it moved along the bank weaving in and out of the sparse vegetation, its fur a lovely glossy brown. The blunt, cutesy nose of a field vole tends to give the beastie a more endearing appearance than the pointy noses of their rat and mouse relatives.


In the past I’ve only managed to catch brief glimpses of field voles darting across the narrow tracks through the grasslands, with little opportunity to study them closely.


One of the voles’ main predators on the hill is the kestrel, the all seeing eye in sky. On a breezy afternoon in July I watched four excitable “kee-kee keeing” kestrels circling around the top of the radio mast on Blackford Hill. The two parent birds hovered close to the structure while the young ones settled rather nervously on the uppermost spar and continued with their needy cries for attention.


The adult male spiralled up into the wild blue yonder until he became a tiny speck and disappeared, while the female remained at a lower altitude hovering beside a high-viz Japanese paper kite shaped in the form of an octopus with trailing tentacles rippling gently from side to side.



The Dad tugging on the kite was having all the fun while his two sulky children were wandering in the opposite direction, whacking the dainty harebells with sticks. That’s men for you, commandeering their kid’s toys and not sharing. I once invested a significant amount of pocket money with my brother Peter, to go half shares on a model space rocket designed to be launched into the stratosphere using a primitive elastic catapult.


Unfortunately, I never did get the opportunity to try it myself because, on my brother’s third continuous launch, the automatic parachute failed to open and bring the craft down safely in one piece. Arrggghhhh!


In later life, my big brother claimed to have no memory of this tragic incident. A birding friend of mine recently told me that he had once discovered fish bones in a tawny owl pellet. My own examinations of tawny owl pellets have usually revealed the bones of voles, shrews, rats, sparrows, finches and the occasional young rabbit.


Tawny Owl
Tawny Owl

Tawnies mainly hunt from a fixed position on a post or branch, dropping down on their prey at ground level but they also take roosting birds from trees and buildings. Apparently, the fish diet is not as rare as one would think, especially in urban areas where there are gardens with ponds.


Tawnies can thrive on relatively small territories with a wide range of prey species available to them, including fish, worms and frogs. Herons and domestic cats have been the chief suspects when carp and other ornamental fish have disappeared overnight from garden ponds.


A chap in Derbyshire recently solved the mystery of his own missing goldfish when he checked the footage on his wildlife camera trap set up in the garden beside his pond. The culprit was a tawny owl which also used his pond for bathing.


A word of warning for woodland walkers who sometimes find “orphan” fledgling owlets on the forest floor. Wise to leave them where you find them: they are strong climbers with needle sharp talons and their parents know precisely where they are.


My brother Peter sported an impressive childhood scar on his head inflicted by the talons of a parent tawny owl protecting its young and he was fortunate not to lose an eye. Nero, the big beefy black tomcat from number 15 may be innocent of the murder rap relating to the dead nutkin discovered in the garden at number 9. There was only circumstantial evidence linking him with the crime.


On the 25th of July we witnessed a smaller black and white cat grab a squirrel by the tail in front of our house and wrestle it up and down the road scratching, biting and screaming. It was a slow death, unlike the swift kill from a dog bite. Eventually the moggie dragged its prize down the lane at the top of the street and under a gate into the garden.


Tom Breheny

Written for The Grange Newsletter I September 2018