By Carolyn Screech
My first close encounter with an owl came during the spring of 1966 when I was eight years old and we lived in an old farmhouse in the heart of the china clay country. One evening, when out with my father on the farm, I spotted a fluffy grey ball lying on the ground outside the barn. My vivid memory was of staring at this red-rimmed, bleary-eyed creature and not having a clue what it was.
And, as only a child would, I decided to give it a quick poke to see how it would react. When the creature didn’t attempt to bite me, I thought it would be safe to pick it up. But I very quickly threw it in my father’s direction when its sharp talons pierced my fingers.
The following morning a second strange creature was found near the barn, and joined its twin in the picnic baskets beside the Aga in our kitchen. During the days that followed this exciting discovery my father made inquiries about our supposedly orphaned creatures to a local vet and some known bird keepers in the area.
He managed to establish that the twin creatures were owls, believed at the time to be barn owls as (logically thinking) they were found outside the barn. Oscar and Iscar, as they were named, appeared to thrive, and in later weeks progressed to perching on two chair backs in the parlour with its slated floor. I seem to remember them eating a recommended diet of various raw meats, including liver, and I often think back to these primitive days and wonder how they had survived.
The twins regularly accompanied the family on outings and became well-known visitors to the local grocery shop. Imagine the reaction of environmental health officers today to a pair of owls in a food shop! How times have changed.
Thirty years ago Cornwall was not renowned for its scientific innovations, and little or no advice on practical care for owl species was on offer. Even today our county is still very much out on a limb when it comes to research and technology, but at least people are now prepared to cross over the water to gain this knowledge and information.
After the very unconventional release of our twin creatures back to the farmyard, after they had become somewhat fretful in the parlour, I can only assume that at least one of these owls survived after release as it was often seen at dusk in the orchard.
This experience paved the way for my lifelong passion and later played a very important part in my destiny and working life.
My path changed during the succeeding years, and at 18 years old I began nurse training. I met and married a man named Tom Screech, and returned to my passion in the form of a captive collection of owls. It was initially a hobby, and I spent many hours of study trying to learn how to provide the best possible care and housing for the owls, although written information at this time was limited.
The collection began to expand rapidly after an elderly breeder passed on his dwindled collection of birds to us in preparation for his retirement. This menagerie included a disabled buzzard and a barn owl who had lost half a wing in a road accident.
It became apparent that we had outgrown our large allotment garden and we moved to a two-and-a-half acre smallholding which was where the Screech Owl Sanctuary officially began in 1990. We remained there until 1994 when we relocated to a much larger and more practical site, our current location in mid-Cornwall.
In recent years we have experienced some upheaval thanks to the project to realign a nearby section of the A30 trunk road. But the main construction works are now complete and the road formally opened to traffic on 11 July 2007. This has resulted in new features at the sanctuary and environmental improvements around Goss Moor including a new a bridleway, cyclepath and footpath improving access to the area. Yet another good reason to pay us a visit!