The Owl House

Daniel Butler
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 26, 2020
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For twenty-five years Daniel Butler has lived in the Cambrian Mountains near Rhayader, absorbing the world around him and charting its changes, slow and rapid. His passion for keeping hawks was compounded by two wild birds, barn owls which nested at his farm and became increasingly tame and familiar with him and his family.

Charting his relationship with his birds The Owl House is also a pastoral exploration of Daniel’s locale, rich as it is in wildlife of all kinds. In it he roams the mountains and forests, takes trips to the coast, encounters all manner of animals and birds, and grows to understand the relationship between the local people and their surroundings.

These multiple and interwoven themes result in a rich and vividly written portrait of one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of Britain, broad in its horizons yet full of fascinating detail. The Owl House is an evocative and informative book which can only have been lived to accrue the stories and observations of the natural world which it contains.



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Reviewed by Laura Eppinger, The Cardiff Review

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Humankind and birdkind collide: The Owl House by Daniel Butler

"Butler uses the language of a spiritual experience to describe his first sighting of a barn owl in summer twilight."

In The Owl House, Daniel Butler describes a decades-long relationship with the natural world—in particular, owls—on the property he owns in Wales. This memoir is also a meditation on environmental rehabilitation, on place and history, and on what it means to be Welsh.

We begin in the 1990s when Butler and his partner, pregnant with their first child, leave their individual London flats to hunt for a house in Wales. Butler’s longtime dream was to own a farmhouse and live self-sufficiently, so the search throughout the Welsh countryside reflected these aims. He describes his joy at leaving London, for a place where everything feels bigger:  “As we went deeper into Wales the scenery and habitats became more spectacular and the wildlife possibilities more thrilling,” he writes. “The inclines were steeper, the skyline higher, and the woods bigger and older. Everything felt more deeply soaked in history.”

It seems his dream house has materialized when they view a house “stone-built with thick walls and rough-hewn beams.” The property is called Tan y Cefn (“back of the hill”) and boasts an old milking parlour, a number of nineteenth century traditional barns, a duck pond, a conifer plantation, and eleven acres of land for grazing. Butler is “a journalist with an obsessive interest in birds of prey” and so the real selling feature was the suggestion that barn owls are often sighted in the area.

Butler names Romanticism as an influence in how he understands what homeownership in the country would be like, and so often the descriptions in the pages of The Owl House are whole-heartedly ecstatic or sublime. There is this beautiful symmetry between the new home in Wales and the addition to Butler’s family: 

“The baby’s arrival was, appropriately enough, at Easter just as local ewes would be lambing in the fields behind the house while the hedges would begin to ring with the calls of thousands of songbirds that would flood in from Africa.”

Butler uses the language of a spiritual experience to describe his first sighting of a barn owl in summer twilight. He then contrasts this with old Welsh sayings about owls being the harbingers of death. But the relationship between owls and people is more complex; humans traditionally appreciated owls for the hunting of mice as pest control. Recalling this history inspires him to try housing owls, and over the years he befriends falconers and wildlife rescuers to offer homes for owls. These rehabilitated owls begin to breed, leading to funny encounters such as a young owl repeatedly attacking a tennis ball Butler’s son had been playing with, mistaking it for a fuzzy yellow chick (potential prey).

From here, Butler uses old methods of training falcons on the local owls, with mixed success.

It is apparently illegal to release owls raised in captivity back into the wild, so he painstakingly maintains a distance from these rescued birds and their subsequent generations, keeping them “wild”. (He describes their nests as smelling of “rotting meat and ammonia”, so perhaps this distance comes with relief.)

The Owl House is rich with examples detailing the curious relationship between humans and birds, historically. I learned that one reason European bird populations declined from the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries was the human hobby of bird egg collecting.

More complicated: Eric Hoskings, credited as the first bird photographer, lost an eye when a snowy owl he was photographing attacked him. Still, Hoskings remained dedicated to birds and photography for the rest of his life.

A more lighthearted incidence of wildlife and human life colliding is seen on the instinct of kites (the bird species) to build nests with the most colorful materials available. In more urban centers, this sometimes means kites snatch colorful underwear off clothes lines to add to their nests.

One contested topic regarding humans’ relationship to animals is farming and conservation. As Butler tells it, they don’t need to be opposites. The book also serves as a glimpse into the conservation world and the disagreements between environmentalists, too. When should people reintroduce an animal species to an area? What to do if this happens accidentally? What if a species that disappeared hundreds of years ago but has been bred in captivity has changed in subsequent generations and is no longer the original “native” species? I am also left with the impression that this writer’s views on ecology are often at odds with U.K. laws regarding farmed and wild animals or those in captivity. And so, the complexities of national and local laws regarding human interactions with wildlife are also explored in The Owl House.

I was encouraged by the examples Butler gave of wildlife returning and thriving to Wales. The description of the book notes that Butler has observed “changes” to the environment in the past twenty-fire years, so I imagined these would be dire. Not so! He writes optimistically about old species returning, such as wild boar which were long ago native to Wales and appear in Arthurian legend. Apparently, Welsh beavers and wolves were hunted to extinction by people during the reign of Henry VIII. Many centuries later, the reintroduction of these animals to these areas is considered viable.

Reading this book, I learned that when endangered Welsh birds are bred in captivity and released back into the wild, they are tracked by radio, and breeding is monitored. Reintroduction fails if, for example, there isn’t enough food in the environment to sustain the returned animal. Animal rehabilitation is a new field to me, so I was interested in this collective, organized effort at wildlife maintenance. (I am writing from outside the U.K. so I am unsure if this is anyone’s primary profession or if these are all volunteer efforts. It is heartening work, either way.)

In the chapter “Nature Does It Better”, Butler makes his case that the best conservation strategy is to let nature take its course in reclaimed previously farmed land, rather than invest in expensive and time-consuming schemes to breed animals and then release them into the wild. He offers examples from personal experience, with trees and with wildlife, where the takeaway is that self-established life fares better than anything cultivated by humans.

Butler may have been a transplant to Wales twenty-five years ago, but he is now a purveyor of local flavor and brimming with pride for Radnorshire, the least populated county in Wales. He paints a colorful picture of his small town and its inhabitants, who can trace their town’s name back to the neolithic age and still harbor hard feelings for William the Conqueror. According to Butler, the Welsh are most loyal to their hometowns—not the U.K., not even Wales. Rather, there is a hyperlocal loyalty, one that Butler conveys in his descriptions that leaves the reader charmed. 

Butler is at his best when his love for and attention to detail shine through. I’ll close with his description of a Welsh summer, which also includes a surprise animal encounter: 

“October weather is often some of the best, with warm sunny days and glorious misty mornings. In such conditions I often sleep with the bedroom window open, enjoying the fresh air, birdsong and the musty scents of ‘mellow fruitfulness’.This can produce surprises, however. Occasionally a bat will fly in only to circle in panic when it cannot find the way out.”


Review by Sarah Bowdidge, Buzz Magazine

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Daniel Butler has been passionate about birds and wildlife from a young age and has built a successful career as a wildlife writer and journalist on the back of this obsession. The book is focused around two barn owls which chose to nest at his farm and how they came to be comfortable with his family to such an extent that Butler could feed them straight from his hand. His close connection with the owls leads him to consider the nature, history and wildlife of the wider landscape around his local area and beyond.

Butler touches on topics such as reintroducing species and concentrates on the relationship between humans and nature; there are chapters focusing on Welsh raptors, weasels and the importance of conserving wildlife for the future and what we can do to support it in the meantime. It’s clear when reading this book how knowledgeable Daniel Butler is about nature: The Owl House is packed with information that makes this book ideal for anyone, whether they are already knowledgeable themselves or learning about conservation for the first time. A rich, vividly written book about birds, wildlife and nature, thought-provoking and inspiring.

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