Dorset’s Bird Whisperer – Les Rowland
Brian Moore meets Les Rowland, a man who can charm the birds from the trees
Published in July ’12
A small crowd watched as a fledging crow hopped warily along the railway garden wall in Sturminster Newton where a curious onlooker had placed some breadcrumbs. When approached the bird flew off, but it returned when 87-year-old Leslie Rowland arrived.
‘A young jackdaw,’ he announced, ’a cock bird. I met him last week; let’s see if it’s hungry. He picked up the breadcrumbs, spoke quietly to the bird and within seconds it was feeding from his hand. The crowd clapped in unison. The story became an overnight sensation but not to Les, or to anyone who knows him. Many years ago he was dubbed the Bird Whisperer of Dorset. Not solely because birds perch on him like he’s a small tree, but because they know him – know he will not harm them. When I asked why the bird fed from his hand, he said: ‘All wild animals are afraid of man. He is the only being that kills for sport. All the beasts of the forests and hedgerows know and understand this; they also recognise a friend. They know who will harm them and who will care for them… and they know me.’
Born in the village of Kings Stag in North Dorset in 1924, Les was the third of four children. His father was a cattle dealer and slaughter man whose sole pleasure in life was work except on market days when a pint of ale and an hour with friends came a close second.
Les’s education suffered by his being overworked in childhood, but his love of the countryside gave him an insight into a world far removed from the hardship of his formative years. Every moment stolen from work he spent with his friends; the birds and beasts of the hedgerows – badgers, foxes, polecats and deer, he befriended them all and they in turn befriended him. The boy became as one with the animals and birds of the Blackmore Vale.
By the age of eight Les often worked into the early hours holding a candle while his father cut and butchered pigs and calves ready for the meat lorry which called before 3.00 in order to be at Smithfield by five. He could harness a pair of heavy horses by the time he was ten and at twelve years old could harrow and hoe behind a pair of Suffolks as sure footed as a man. His greatest love was and is horses, he still keeps one today.
Many times during the early 1930s an exhausted Les huddled under a blanket by the stove in the classroom and slept all day. School mistress Mrs Lumb, a strict but kind lady, understood and let him sleep. His fellow pupils never disturbed him for Les’s mother would send food to their homes if they were hungry and clothes to keep them warm. According to Les she was the kindliest soul ever to walk God’s earth while his father was the opposite. A hard, driven man who demanded a man’s work from a child.
Les recalled, ‘I escaped from the harsh regime of my father by living with the animals. I would rather bed down in a mound of freshly cut hay with a horse, a dog or a fox for company than sleep in a bed. To wake up in the morning to the sound of the morning chorus is the most wonderful feeling of all. I could name every bird in the hedgerows by the time I was eight and even the shy wren with its feathered tail cocked in the air, would hop up to me for a tit-bit. The birds of the Blackmore Vale were my friends, their descendants still are.
‘When I was ten I could mimic every bird call in the vale. I talked to linnets, skylarks, sparrows, finches, blackbirds and goldcrests, and they talked back. ‘The only bird I dislike is the magpie. I have seen one attack a thrush’s nest, tear the young to bits and make off with the remains. I know it is nature but I don’t like it: I would kill a magpie and a rat but nothing else.
‘I left school in 1938 when I was fourteen and started full time work for my father, the hardest man in the county, so legend goes. He measured everyone by his own ability to work a fifteen hour day and expected me to do the same even though I was still a boy. We started no later then five in the morning and when it was meat lorry day we would work well into the night. Mother would bring out hot broth to keep us going. It had to be done; money was needed to secure the freehold of the small farm father had recently bought. The meat and skins were loaded for Smithfield while the innards and offal were kept back for mother. Nothing was wasted. The bones were sold to the local rag and bone man.
‘Mother had a huge cooking tray which was heated on a giant paraffin stove. I don’t recall that stove ever being out. She and I chopped and minced pieces of pig’s innards to make faggots and from the calf offal she created choddens and meat balls the taste you will never experience again, although up north they come close with their muggens. When cooked and bagged we loaded them into panniers each side of my bicycle and off I went round the five hamlets selling her wares. I was welcome in every house and shop in the area. Twice a week I would add cheese to the panniers. Mother’s cheese was famous and much sought after. No health and safety then.
‘When I had finished, it was back to the fields, ploughing, harrowing and seeding. All the time I talked to my birds. They followed the hay rake and the chain harrow from sun up to sunset, sometimes perching on my shoulders. If I was lucky it was the cinema in Sturminster Newton on a Saturday night but I still had to be up for milking by 4am on Sunday morning, I rarely had a day off until I left home and worked on other farms.
‘The war years changed everything. I joined the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers, later rechristened the Home Guard) in 1939 and slept three nights a week in the parish hall on guard duty so didn’t have to help with the slaughtering. Another thing that eased my workload was the help father had from the prisoners of war who were camped nearby. A number of these men, Italians and Germans, worked on the farm during the early 1940s, one German became a good friend. Because of their help I had more free time to follow animal trails. I have lain in a field for hours watching mice run up stalks of corn, hares boxing and foxes mating. Nature is a wonderful thing if only we take the time to stop, look and listen.
‘There are lanes round here where you can still lean on a gate and watch a family of foxes at play and a brace of roe deer rubbing noses. The cuckoo announces the arrival of spring, the polecat screeches for a mate and the brown owl warns off any would-be interloper. The countryside is alive with life and there is nothing better than sitting at the bottom of the garden surrounded by my birds and being part of nature.’
In the mid 1970s Les gained national notoriety when he appeared on BBC TV and in the national media with a young fox and a deer, both of which he had saved from certain death and who lived together with him.
‘One of the most rewarding times in my life,’ Les recalls, ‘was the day in 1993 when a young man knocked at my door and announced himself as Frank Dabler, the nephew of the German prisoner of war I befriended in the 1940s. That was a moving moment. For a young man to travel from Germany and thank me for befriending his uncle all those years ago was special; a memory I will take with me to the end of my life.’