We are learning a new set of responses to the wild world. When our ancestors — even our recent ones — saw a top predator, they saw human failure. They saw loss of control: a place where the humans had slackened their grip, or worse, where humans had never been able to impose themselves in the first place.
They saw nature’s victory, and it hurt.
These days it’s different. Last Monday I saw half-a-dozen short-eared owls, all hunting in the gathering dusk around Rymer’s Reedbed in the heart of the Great Fen Project – and I felt a warm glow on a chill afternoon. I felt that we humans were getting something right.
When you see an apex predator in action, it tells you that the entire ecosystem is in decent shape. It has to be, if it is to support a predator. All the microscopic stuff that only an expert can measure, all the invertebrates that only specialists can identify, all the interaction between plants and animals — you know that all these things are functioning when you have a thriving population of predators.
In any place you visit, the top predators are always the most vulnerable animals. One glimpse of an owl tells you that things are OK. When there are owls in plenty, you know that the place before you is all right from top to bottom. The ferocity of the predator reassures the human onlooker.
The Great Fen Project is more than halfway towards the acquisition of 14 square miles of countryside, which are gradually – gradually – being returned to the ancient wet wilderness that dominated this part of the world before the great draining.
And here is a corner of the project that is more advanced than most, and the land is expressing its wild joy in the form of owls: mostly birds that have dropped in from Scandinavia to winter with us. They counted 16 individuals here the other day. There they were, golden-eyed, crossing and recrossing the flat world on floppy wings. I stood for a while to witness their silent urgency, feeling this landscape coming back to itself, a place full of profound riches for visiting humans.
Owls in their heaven. All’s right with the world.