The Secret Life of Owls documentary captures their silent, deadly beauty like never before

Producer Tom Cooke and photographer Russell Savory tell Terry Payne about the enchanting footage coming to new channel 5Select

The Secret Life of Owls (Russell Savory, EH)

Wings tucked tightly in, eyes locked on to its target, this resolutely focused owl prepares to land at a location in the Essex countryside that a century ago would have seen finessed flight of an altogether different kind.

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Back in the First World War, it would have been a Sopwith Camel fighter plane landing at Stow Maries aerodrome near Maldon, after defending London from raids by German Zeppelin airships. But today the aerodrome site – the only one of its kind left in the UK – is a haven for owls, with all five British species found there including Geronimo, the little owl pictured above.

Someone who knows the location better than anyone is the man who took the photograph, 63-year-old Russell Savory. It’s one of an astonishing 300,000 stills he has in his wildlife archive.

Savory originally helped buy the 100-acre site ten years ago because of its aviation and wildlife significance, though it’s now owned by a charitable trust. “I came here every day, seven days a week for eight years, to watch and take photographs of the owls,” says Savory, who’s featured in a new two-part documentary this week. “In the summer months I was here at 2.30 in the morning until 9pm in the evening.”

The Secret Life of Owls (Russell Savory, EH)
Russell Savory

Savory admits that his love of wildlife, and owls in particular, is all-consuming. But there’s another reason he decided to devote his life to photographing and protecting these beautiful creatures. “I had just come through treatment for cancer and had had quite a tough time of it. I vowed then that I would see every sunrise and every sunset that was viewable. It just got me out of the house and going again.”

Safe to say that Savory has a very understanding wife (“I have learnt how to tiptoe out of the house in the early hours without disturbing her”) and it’s also reasonable to conclude that he remains equally as enchanted by the aerodrome site. “When I first visited it I had only been there a few minutes and a barn owl flew right in front of me. It was magical.”

The site’s origins are more prosaic than magical. It was established as one of a ring of aerodromes to protect the capital. In the final year of the Great War there were 16 aircraft stationed there. With 22 buildings still standing – including the ambulance shed, the mortuary and the officers’ mess – it remains the best-preserved First World War aerodrome in the country, which was good news for the film-makers.

The team used a barn where an electricity generator was once located to install three camera rigs that, over the best part of a year, captured the comings and goings of a pair of barn owls. The motion sensor cameras were triggered every time a bird, regardless of species, flew into the barn, creating something of an editing nightmare. “We ended up with hundreds of hours of footage,” says series producer Tom Cooke. “It took weeks and weeks editing out things like pigeons to end up with the footage we wanted.”

The resulting footage, it has to be said, is enchanting. So what, for Savory, makes owls so special? “For me it’s all about the face. Little owls in particular have got such expressive faces – they will either look excited or angry because they have got these eyebrows that move about. They are just so, so entertaining.”

Owl photograph taken by Russell Savory

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The Secret Life of Owls is on Tuesday 13th February at 10pm on 5Select, which is available on Freeview and all other digital platforms