de Havilland, Speilberg and the Short Eared Owl

Hatfield’s flat expansive airfields and the iconic 1930’s Comet pub are strong childhood images, locked into my memory as I travelled with my family to compete in cross-country races north of London. This was a time long before the M25 encircled London when the North Circular Road was the main trunk road and took you through towns and villages that landmarked your journey.

The great aircraft pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland  had bought land to the west of Hatfield in 1933 and the site was significant in the development of all the companies aircraft, including the highly successful WWII Mosquito and the world’s first jet liner the de Havilland Comet, born on the aerodrome’s runways in 1949.

In 1960 de Havilland sold the site and his company to Hawker Sidley with Hatfield Aeorodrome eventually closing it’s runways in 1993.
The 400 acres of land remained silent, derelict and unused until later in the 1990’s when the site’s vast scale caught the eye of Hollywood film-makers. Stephen Spielberg had the French village sets for the film Saving Private Ryan built on the land, used again for the series Band of Brothers before again the skies and land fell quiet.

Wildlife of course has always been present and as the echoes of man’s finest flying machines faded away, the avian variety continued to live and fly on the flat grasslands. The University of Hertfordshire campus now replaces the old de Havilland aerodromes to the east, nestled amongst the new businesses and office developments that straddle the A1. The developers have cleared and given public access to the land as a woodland and grassland park – Ellenbrook Fields.
I made my first visit this afternoon, hoping for a sighting of a special bird that I’ve never had the chance to see. This was a beautiful winter Sunday, the first thoughts of spring almost coming to mind in the chirpy calls of the tits and finches that dotted and flitted through the hedgerows. Small fluffy clouds occasionally obscured the low yellow sun as I walked across the grass and scrub, occasional area of brick debris and landscaped mound hinting at earlier uses. A patient hour finally paid dividends as a hundred yards away I saw the un-mistakable site of an owl working across the land, hunting and quartering between hawthorn and bramble hummocks. I positioned myself so as not to disturb and watched mesmerised as this beautiful specimen of a Short Eared Owl swung towards me, long silent wings arcing and manoeuvring the bird in the hunt for vole or field mouse scurrying below.

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