This section is from the book "Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain", by Alfred W. Rees. Also available from Amazon: Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain.
Living a secluded life in the pasture with his little mate, Kweek escaped the close attention paid by the "vermin" to his kindred in the colony beyond the wood. The brown owl still remembered where he dwelt, but, loath to make a special nightly journey to the spot, seldom caused him the least anxiety. She seemed to content herself with a strict watch over the bank inhabited by the red voles, and over the fields on the far side of the copse, where the grey voles, notwithstanding that they supplied her with many a delicious supper, were becoming numerous. She awaited an almost certain increase among the "small deer" of the pasture, before commencing her raids on the grey voles there. As events proved, however, her patience was unrewarded.
Kweek's first experience in rearing a family ended disastrously. Two of the nurslings died a few hours after birth; one, venturing from the nest too soon in the evening, was killed by a magpie; and two, while sitting out near the hedge, were trampled to death by a flock of sheep rushing, panic-stricken, at the sight of a wandering fox. By the middle of May, when another vole family of six had arrived, the number of vermin in the valley had perceptibly diminished. The old, asthmatic keeper in charge of the Cerdyn valley died, and a younger and more energetic man from a neighbouring estate came to take his place. Eager to gain the favour of his master by providing him good sport in the coming autumn, the new keeper ranged the woods from dawn till dusk, setting pole-traps in the trees, or baiting rabbit-traps in the "creeps" of stoat or weasel, and destroying nests, as well as shooting any furred or feathered creature of questionable character. The big brown owl from the beech-grove, the kestrel from the rock on the far side of the brook, the sparrow-hawk from the spinney upstream, together with the weasels, the stoats, the cats, the jays, and the magpies—all in turn met their doom.
A pair of barn-owls from the loft in the farm suffered next. These owls were great pets at the old homestead. For many years they had lived unmolested in their gloomy retreat under the tiles, and regularly at nightfall had flown fearlessly to and fro among the outbuildings, or perched on the ruined pigeon-cote watching for the rats to leave their holes.
The farmer, less ignorant than the keeper, recognised the owls as friends, and treated them accordingly. They were his winged cats, and assisted to check the increase of a plague. Like the brown owl, they knew well the habits of the voles; but their attention was diverted by the rats and the mice at the farm, and they seldom wandered far afield except for a change of diet or to stretch wings cramped by a long summer day's seclusion. The rats, however, were far from being exterminated; and so, when a little child who was all sunshine to his parents in the lonely homestead died from typhoid fever, the village doctor, fearing an epidemic, advised that the pests should be utterly destroyed. Loath to use strychnine, since he knew that in a neighbouring valley some owls had died from eating poisoned rats, the farmer sought the aid of the village poachers, who, with their terriers and ferrets, thoroughly searched the stacks and the buildings. During the hunt it was noticed that about a score of rats took refuge in a narrow chamber under the eaves. The farmer, directing operations in another part of the yard, was unaware of what had occurred. The poachers, knowing nothing of the presence of the owls, pushed a terrier through the opening beneath the rafters of the loft, and blocked the hole with the rusty blade of a disused shovel. For a few moments the quick patter of tiny feet indicated that the terrier was busily engaged with his task; then cries of rage and terror came from the imprisoned dog, while with these cries were mingled the sounds of flapping wings. When at last the poachers unstopped the hole and dragged the terrier out, they found that every rat had been killed, and that the place was thickly strewn with the feathers of two dying owls.
During the rest of the summer, Kweek led a strangely peaceful life, having little to fear beyond an occasional visit from Reynard, or from an astute old magpie that, evading with apparent ease the keeper's gun and pole-traps, lived on till the late autumn, when, before a line of beaters, he broke cover over some sportsmen waiting for their driven game. As soon as the leaves began to fall and exhausted Nature longed for winter's rest, the burrow in the pasture became the scene of feverish activity. Kweek was now the proud sire of five or six healthy families, and the grand-sire of many more. Even the youngest voles were growing fat and strong; and, when the numerous members of the colony set about harvesting their winter stores, ripe, delicious seeds were plentiful everywhere along the margin of the wood.
The winter was uniformly mild, with exception of one short period of great cold which brought a thorough, healthful sleep to the voles; and in the earliest days of spring, when the love-calls of chaffinches and tits were heard from almost every tree, Kweek and his tribe resumed their work and throve amazingly. Every circumstance appeared to favour their well-being. But for the fox, that sometimes crouched beside an opening to the burrow and snapped up an incautious venturer peeping above ground, a young sheep-dog, whose greatest pleasure in life seemed to be found in digging a large round hole in the centre of the burrow, and an adder, that stung a few of the weaklings to death, but found them inconveniently big for swallowing, the voles were seldom troubled. Their numbers, and those of every similar colony in the neighbourhood, increased in such a fashion that, before the following autumn, both the pasture and the near ploughland were barren wastes completely honeycombed with their dwellings. Every grass-root in the pasture was eaten up; every stalk in the cornfield was nibbled through so that the grain might be easily reached and devoured; and the root-crops—potatoes, turnips, and mangolds—on the far side of the cornfield were utterly spoiled; and in the hedgerows and the copse the leaves dropped from the lifeless trees, each of which was marked by a complete ring where the bark was gnawed away close to the ground.
But capricious Nature, as if regretting the haste with which she had brought into the world her destructive little children, and desiring, even at the cost of untold suffering and the loss of countless lives, to restore the pleasant Cerdyn valley to its beauty of green fields and leafy woods, sent her twin plagues of disease and starvation among the voles, till, like the sapless leaves, they withered and died. And from far and near the hawks and the owls, the weasels, the stoats, and the foxes hastened to the scene. The keeper, at a loss to know whence they came, and not understanding the lesson he was being taught, bewailed his misfortune, but dared not stay their advent. At almost any hour of the day, five or six kestrels might be seen quartering the fields or hovering here and there among the burrows.
And, long before dark, the stoats and the weasels, as if knowing that, fulfilling a special mission, they were now safe from their arch-enemy, the keeper, hunted their prey through the " trash " of the hedge-banks, or in and out of the passages underground.
The farm labourers, in desperate haste, dug numerous pitfalls, wide at the bottom but narrow at the mouth, and trapped hundreds of the voles, which, maddened by hunger but unable to climb the sloping sides, attacked one another — all at last dying a miserable death. Not only did the customary enemies of the voles arrive on the scene: Nature called to her great task a number of unexpected destroyers—sea-gulls from the distant coast, a kite from a wooded island on a desolate, far-off mere, and a buzzard from a rocky fastness, rarely visited save by keepers and shepherds, near the up-country lakes. Food had gradually become scarce even for the few hundred voles that yet remained. No longer were they to be seen at play together, in little groups, during the cool, hazy twilight, that, earlier in the year, shimmered like a wonderful afterglow on the mossy pasturefloor. Now their only desire was for food and sleep.
Unnoticed by a passing owl, Kweek, worn to a skeleton by sickness and privation, crawled from his burrow into the moonlight of a calm, clear autumn night, and lay in the shadow of the stone where the old male vole had watched and listened for the cruel "vear." A big blow-fly, attracted, with countless thousands of his kind, to the place of slaughter and decay, had gone to sleep on the side of the stone, and Kweek, in a last desperate effort to obtain a little food, moved forward to secure his prize; but at that moment his strength failed him, his weary limbs relaxed, and the dull, grey film of death overspread his half-closed eyes.
The owl, hearing a faint sound like the rustle of a dry grass-bent, quickly turned in her flight; then, slanting her wings, dropped to the ground, and presently, with her defenceless quarry in her talons, flew away towards the woods.