The Wisdom of Owls

Many local bird species are under threat in our local area.

Words: Warren Draper

Photography: Warren Draper

            “Pooh had wandered into the Hundred Acre Wood, and was standing in front of what had once been Owl’s house. It didn’t look at all like a house now, it looked like a tree that had been blown down; and as soon as a house looks like that, it is time you tried to find another one.”

‘The House on Pooh Corner’ by A.A. Milne

            Unfortunately, in our modern world, new owl houses are not so easy to find. Loss of habitat – to urban development, roads, industry and new farming methods – has left many of our fellow creatures struggling to find a suitable place to call home. Additional pressures, such as climate change, pesticides and pollution, have seen dramatic losses in virtually all UK wildlife populations over recent decades, so havens such as the Misson Carr nature reserve are absolutely vital if we are to save and repair this green and pleasant land. Just a few miles from Bawtry, this former MOD training area shows that it isn’t too late for British wildlife. Run by the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust since 2001, the wild has come to replace warfare and the site is now a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).

            Misson Carr is home to an extraordinary array of wildlife including animals such as great crested newts, harvest mice and water voles, and many unusual plants such as twayblade and marsh stitchwort. The site holds more records for nationally notable moth species than any other in the UK including cream-bordered green pea, angle-striped sallow, red-tipped clearwing and nationally significant species such as dentated pug and the marsh carpet. However, it was our feathered friends who caught the imagination of one local artist and activist.

            Red list bird species such as song thrush, skylark linnet and spotted flycatcher have been recorded, along with bittern and golden oriole. Misson Carr is perhaps most notable for its owls, with all five native UK species choosing to call it home. It was the owl, the wisest of birds, which inspired art activist Kate when the future of Misson Carr came under threat.

            For the last four years, locals have been fighting plans to extract gas in the area using a highly controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing – aka ‘fracking’. The process involves the high-pressure injection of very large quantities of ‘fracking fluid’ (usually water and sand) into a well to create cracks and fissures in deep-rock formations to make it easier to extract the fossil fuels contained within the rock. The process is controversial because of known hazards to public health, wildlife and the environment; including risks of ground and surface water contamination, air and noise pollution and even the triggering of earthquakes. These risks are compounded in Misson for several reasons.

Firstly, there is the aforementioned nature reserve. The direct threat to the many endangered species at the SSSI led Kate to build the textile owls who can be found on many an anti-fracking demo (and even at the finish of the first stage of this year’s Tour de Yorkshire in Doncaster back in May). Artist Kate built these beautiful owls to help raise awareness about fracking, but they are works of art in their own right. She first created a barn owl with an impressive 15’ wingspan, then she built a slightly smaller long-eared owl. They look amazing side-by-side at events, protests and processions – truly ‘art in action’. She plans to build each of the other three species, albeit on a smaller scale.

            Then there is the fact that, according to a major study by the British Geological Survey and the Environment Agency, the Bowland Shale in northern England (which includes all of the proposed Doncaster fracking sites) runs below no fewer than six major aquifers – supplying water for millions of people. So not exactly a NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) kind of problem. Fracking can contaminate drinking water with deadly pollutants such as methane.

            Our locally proposed fracking sites also sit above the Selby Coalfield. The existence of mines throughout the area adds greatly to the problem of earthquakes and major subsidence due to fracking. Again, this makes what is happening at Misson an issue for everyone in Doncaster who lives over former mining works, which is most of us. One of the main excuses for fracking is that we desperately need the energy it will provide. But fossil fuels add to climate chaos and the mines themselves can provide a cleaner, cheaper and more immediate energy source in the form of geothermal springs. Ask any old miner; the deeper you go, the hotter it gets. Abandoned mine works are a ready-made geothermal power station. But it will be impossible to take advantage of this eco-friendly energy source in our area once fracking starts. 

            Finally, there is the small problem of unexploded ordnance. As I mentioned earlier, the exploration drill is being built on a former MOD site used for bomber practice. It is now owned by a military hardware dealer who was imprisoned in 2009 for illegally selling former military personnel carriers to war-torn Sudan. I don’t know how much risk the presence of bombs adds to the possibility of earthquake and mine collapse but I, for one, won’t be standing anywhere near ‘The Rocket Site’ (yes, that is genuinely what it is called) if drilling starts.

            So, there you have it. A bizarre story of endangered wildlife, drinking water, mines, earthquakes and bombs. And all for energy which could (and should) be provided cheaper and cleaner through geothermal heat pumps. If you, too, think that this is an insane situation, you can put art into action by wearing the cut-out owl mask on the steps of Doncaster Mansion House on International Owl Awareness Day, August 4th, 2018. Follow the campaign for more details.

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