Monday, 18 May 2020

Picking a pellet apart
The intact owl pellet Photo: Bob Russon

Picking a pellet apart

For a while now, we've been obeying the lockdown rules of one exercise session per day by doing a three mile walk along the Redmires Reservoir conduit to the far end and back. It could hardly have been any safer, as, by going out at about 7 am, we hardly met a soul - just the occasional runner or dog walker. On some mornings we had the area to ourselves and in such glorious weather it was a joy to be out in such a splendid landscape.

Recently, there's been a relaxation of the rules. Seizing the opportunity, we decided to repeat a walk we've done a couple of times before and drive a whole ten minutes out along the A57 in the direction of Ladybower, before turning right on Mortimer Road towards the Strines Pub. About half a mile from the turning, there's a right turn onto Sugworth Road and a spot to park by a small gas pumping station.

From here, we walked north along the road. There was only the occasional vehicle and lovely views across Strines and Dale Dike Reservoirs as well as a good variety of birds to spot and identify. After two miles, we took a right turn onto a track which weaves back south across Ughill Moors. The track is very well defined - rough in places but absolutely no problem to anyone used to a decent walk. Wheatear, meadow pipit, red grouse, skylark and golden plover are ever-present and, at the high point of the track (about 1300 feet), there's a convenient stone wall and pile of rocks for that essential break and coffee stop.

It was here when we first did this walk that I found an owl pellet; it was fairly fresh and undamaged so I popped it carefully into my rucksack. Raptors, which swallow their prey whole, get rid of unwanted matter such as bones, fur and feathers by coughing up a pellet after 6 - 8 hours. Dissection of a pellet reveals what prey the raptor has taken - though it does require specialist knowledge to identify shrews, voles, mice etc from the skeletal remains. To dissect a pellet, start by soaking it in water for an hour or so. Then carefully pick it apart using tweezers and a skewer or anything similar. Even without being able to identify all of the results, it's fascinating to see what is revealed. I'm not sure which owl left the offering I found, though from the location I'd imagine it was a short-eared owl which hunts over moorland.

After a breather and admiring the view, we followed the track gently downwards passing Moscar Cross Farm back to the car - about four miles in total. I remember the old days when, after the walk, we'd take the five minute drive to the Strines Inn where the thirsty traveller could partake of the amber liquid and a gigantic ploughmans. But, in these more straitened times, we had to make do with a quick drive home for a glass of water and a plain biscuit!