Life

Nuala McCann: Springwatch owls reminded me I love nature, but not up close

That Springwatch really ought to have carried a warning. It was before the watershed. Never mind small children, there were grown people squawking louder than baby blackbirds in our house

Butter wouldn't melt? A little owl (Athene noctua) – on Springwatch a female fed blackbird chicks to her young

PERHAPS some of the wisest advice comes from the Oracle of Delphi: “Know thyself”.

I have learned that lesson on the hard pavements of Europe. The port of Piraeus – Syphilis Square – where we slept in a huddle waiting for the early ferry to the Greek Islands... Mamma Mia it was not.

I learned it on the train in Yugoslavia where we dozed for hours tucked up beside bearded women and caged clucking chickens and big sacks of red and green peppers in the days when the pepper was so exotic, you’d never have snared one in Crazy Prices.

I learned it with a deep-throated French stranger, hanging out the half window of a slow train to Paris, choking to death on a Gitane cigarette – me, not him.

What I learned was that I don’t like smoking even with tall French strangers; couchettes on trains are affordable and anywhere but anywhere is better than sleeping in Syphilis Square.

There is a fashion of writing letters to one’s younger self offering advice from the throne of great wisdom. I’d just echo the Oracle: “Know thyself”.

Myself looks at my younger self and wonders why she took life way too seriously and the lengths she’d go to just to save money. To hell with poverty, I’d tell her. Who else SAVES money from a student grant, I’d tell her. Why have pan bread when you can eat a big chocolate cake, I’d say.

The younger me occasionally splashed out but she needed to know she had a safe little nest egg in the bank, for the just-in-case moments. They did come about – when you buy a flat, nobody ever really explains how interest rates can shoot up to 13 per cent and that a thing called a rates bill shall plop on to the mat one day... be still my beating heart.

But the “know thyself” I’m sharing with you this week is the fact that I love nature, but not up close. Like my yoga friend, the truth is that I like the idea of it – cute fluffy babies, dolphins like Flipper, dogs who wear hats, cats who play pat-a-cake in French on Youtube, Skippy the bush kangaroo.

Only this week, I discovered baby goats wearing pyjamas and passed a good 10 minutes smiling goofily.

When our boy suggested I google videos for frightened goats, I was astonished at their ability to fall over and play dead, legs sticking straight up in the air, when someone scared them. You’re kidding!

I wasted another half an hour of my life on that.

But the fact that I only love animals at the distance of a long pointy stick became apparent with a recent Springwatch programme. Here were the baby owls and the baby blackbirds tucked up in their little nests at opposite ends of the barn waiting for the mommas and poppas to come with dinner.

One minute it was coochy coo, the next, the mama owl swooped on the baby blackbirds and hauled them squawking to be devoured by her owl babies.

One little blackbird knew his number was up. As his siblings lay dead and bleeding beside him, the sole survivor who could not yet fly, dropped out of his nest and made a desperate scrabble for a dark corner in the shed far from the owls’ gleaming eyes.

That Springwatch really ought to have carried a warning. It was before the watershed. Never mind small children, there were grown people squawking louder than baby blackbirds in our house.

Chris Packham then appeared on screen to reassure us that about 70 per cent of baby owls don’t make it through their first year and food is vital... there are plenty of blackbirds: way of the world. Tell that to mummy and daddy blackbird, we shrieked.

Viewers have also seen a live baby owl being ripped apart by its mother and fed to its siblings. That’s straight out of a Greek tragedy.

So let us return to the Oracle of Delphi and the message about knowing thyself.

I have to confess that I cannot wear the badge of a true nature lover. I’m a cutesy fan. I like my lamb gambolling, but also on a plate with gravy. I like my fish battered with a good dash of salt. And owl babies? I only like sweet, fluffy Percy and Bill from the storybook.

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