Westwards, towards the coast, lies a piece of thin land, spilling from the edges of an opencast coal mine. The locals call this area the ‘Potato Pot’; its name possibly rooted in the history of Irish immigrants who came to west Cumbria to work the mines. Before the mine, this area was called the Wythemoor, its name deriving from the witheys, or willow, which would have grown on this damp moorland.
Some years ago, when I regularly cycled this way, I would see a barn owl in the half-light of early morning, quartering the sedge with practiced patience. The owl became my tutelary being: a reminder that all was well with the world. I passed once again this week, for the first time in many years. Now, there is no owl; perhaps it is already too late in the morning. Perhaps it no longer lives here.
The fate of the barn owl in England is well documented. The loss of ungrazed meadow has robbed the owls of the meadow voles which are their staple food; barn owls are famously picky eaters. At the same time, road deaths account for an estimated third of all barn owl deaths each year, as the owls turn to verges and road cuttings for their hunting. As a statistic, it is an appalling loss of biodiversity.
Perhaps more painful, however, is the imagined loss of individual owls, like the one at Potato Pot. In its absence this week, my mind shrinks from the image of its ghostly wings pressed to the tarmac, robbed of the memory of flight.