I suppose I have always loved owls. When Bill and I were moved to the Cotswolds by Lloyds Bank over 40 years ago, it was like a dream come true – we were living in the country, in an old cottage in a real village. When we walked into town in the evenings, we could hear the owls calling to each other and we would sometimes spot them whilst driving home at night. One night, Bill stopped the car so we could sit and watch a tawny owl standing on the Fairford Town sign. He just looked at us and moved his head in that unique owly way.
When we moved to Pinks Barn some years later, I was having a bath on our first night where I dozed off only to be woken by a tawny owl twit-twooing on our roof – the skylight was open and I almost had a heart attack!
Our esteemed Editor Jenny and I visited a brocante fair in Surrey earlier this year and I was surprised to meet Helena, The Surrey Stuffer. Her display included dozens of birds, a fox, a badger and a mole. She could see my expression and asked me how I felt about stuffed animals. I admitted that my feelings were mixed, but as all her creatures were the result of roadkill or window strikes, I felt her treasures were valid. It was this or putting them in a bin.
Helena is a fascinating lady. She has just celebrated her fifth anniversary in the stuffing business, which was originally intended to be a hobby and a bit of a retirement project. At first it was something she did for pleasure and created creatures for her home. She started to give away her work, then stumbled on the idea of appearing at shows.
Taxidermy has been an interest since childhood. Helena was brought up abroad but when she stayed with her grandmother in Tring, there was only one place she wanted to visit – The Natural History Museum. She learned her craft at classes and specialised in birds as she is a keen bird watcher too and aims to preserve the character of each of her studies.
Of course, living in a barn, I felt I needed an owl and Helena sealed the deal by telling me she already had just the one she could prepare for me. Fast forward a couple of months and Helena was appearing at a show not too far from Pinks and offered to ‘install’ my owl for me. She duly arrived with the owl, some grooming tools and a trusty drill to anchor a perch for the owl on the shelf where she was to be posed. After half an hour, my owl was in her new home and the only thing left to do was to name her. Helena asked that I avoid ‘Hedwig’, and I obliged and named her Alba, after her full Latin name of Tyto Alba.
And that is how my barn came to have its very own owl, just about to take off to go hunting…