As I write this, armed police have spent six days scouring the Northumberland countryside for Britains most wanted man, Raoul Moat, who is allegedly armed and dangerous. We were not unduly bothered until our telephone rang. It was a recorded message from Northumbria Police, advising us to stay indoors.
It was at this point that my wife said: Perhaps you should get one of the guns out of the safe and keep it by the bed, loaded.
Dont be daft, I said.
Whats daft about it? she replied.
Well, for one thing, I might get up in the night and trip over the damn thing, accidentally setting it off and shooting you, I pointed out.
Okay, so dont actually load it, but keep some cartridges nearby, she answered.
But even then, what if some of the police who are checking farms happen to check us? Id be committing a serious fi rearms offence by having the gun out of the safe, and I could get into a whole world of trouble, I replied.
This is bonkers, she said. You seem to be more worried about the law than you are of a violent criminal!
Aint that the truth?
I was out looking for rabbits with the .22 the other evening when my eye was drawn by something white moving in the dark entrance to one of the pole-mounted owl boxes I had put up earlier this year. To my astonishment, there was a barn owl sitting in the entrance. As I watched, another white face peered from behind the first one.
Later, checking my diary, I found that I had put up the box in question just a little more than three months earlier. The adult owls must have moved in almost as I was coming down the ladder. I notified a national park warden who runs a barn owl project in my locality. The next day, he checked the box and took a photograph of three well-grown chicks.
A few days later, I went to check on the owls. It was dusk, and the chicks were active, jostling for space at the entrance. As I watched, one youngster came right out and managed to scramble on to the roof of the box, which sits atop a 14ft pole.
There was a brisk westerly breeze that night, which kept the midges from tormenting me, so I stayed to watch. The young owl faced into the breeze and then did a series of clumsy, flapping, vertical jumps, 3ft or 4ft into the air, landing back on the box each time.
After about half an hour of these antics, it took off and fluttered away for about 40 yards, eventually crash-landing in a clump of rushes. This worried me, as I have been told adult barn owls wont feed a juvenile on the ground if there are others left in the nest. Furthermore, the area is overrun with badgers. Would I have to catch the young owl and put it back in the box, so to speak?
On the edge of his seat
As I deliberated, it attempted to fly back to the nest, but overshot and ended up back on the ground. After two more botched attempts, it finally managed to land back on the top of the box. Meanwhile, another youngster had emerged and was flapping about near the entrance.
Relieved, I set off for home. But when I looked back, I saw the first youngster set off again. It landed 80 yards upwind, on the ground. Presumably, I just happened to turn up at the very moment the brood was leaving the nest for good. I count myself lucky to have witnessed it.