A chance encounter with a former girlfriend’s pet led to a lifelong passion for Bill Higham – and a new identity as he was reborn as ‘Barn Owl Bill’.
Bill and his wife Carole now share their lives with not just one, but 43 owls. And at times the number of birds in Bill’s care has been even higher, rising at its peak to 110.
The aim of the couple’s work is to care for orphaned, injured, displaced or disabled owls and birds of prey and return them to the wild whenever possible.
This year Bill celebrates 25 year of working with the birds.
The Barn Owl Bill owl sanctuary is a registered charity in an unlikely setting – Southbrook Road, Leyland, which Bill described as “a council house with a big back garden”.
A few birds have the privilege of sharing some of the couple’s living space, with perches installed by specially tiled walls in their sitting room.
One of such bird is a 30-year-old Bengal eagle owl with arthritis who cannot cope with the cold, but enjoys being outdoors in the summer.
Carole’s special barn owl Seran also has a living room perch. Bill is the first to acknowledge Carole, whom he married 13 years ago, has “put up with a lot” over the years they have been together.
She said: “I think it’s a case, with Bill, of love me love my birds! I just went with the flow. We had 17 in the house at one point a few years since – they are all kept downstairs. They are not allowed upstairs.”
It has been a journey of both discovery and joy for Bill, whose interest in owls was sparked by chance when his former girlfriend expressed a wish to keep an owl, but then found herself unable to prepare its food.
Bill explained: “It’s nearly 30 years ago now. My girlfriend’s brother had a barn owl that she really liked, I said if you want to get a bird get it – you see to feeding it.”
But when he saw the bird was not getting fed and his girlfriend was unable to prepare the food (dead chicks which needed their gizzards removing), it was the start of a passion that the former painter and decorator could never have predicted.
As news of his interest in owls and his reputation for rescue work spread, he was asked would he give a talk at school.
Told he would be paid, he decided he would set up a bank account for the birds: “I said the birds can have the money. I had a great afternoon and the kids actually loved it.”
Bill is wheelchair bound, suffering from multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis and emphysema. He said: “I can’t do a lot now besides handle the birds and feed them. They are the reason I get up in the morning. Bill Higham is a waste of space but Barn Owl Bill is needed – because we’re on call 24/7 365 days a year for rescues.”
Every year is different. One year might see them caring for up to 20 new barn owls and a couple of tawny owls, another year there might be far fewer, and another year 40 to help get back into the wild.
He said: “We rescue, rehabilitate and re-release about 98 per cent back in the area they come from.”
That area can stretch from the far side of Burnley, north to Kendal and down to Juction18 on the M6 as well as out into Wyre and Blackpool.
“The charity also provides sanctuary for abused or neglected owls.
He continued: “It’s 25 years since the first rescue. It was a tawny owl being pecked to death by crows and magpies at the Sappi paper mill at Feniscowles, near Blackburn. “We actually lost Sappi six years ago due to old age. He was about 19.”
Reflecting on the many birds they have saved, he acknowledges: “Yes, we’re very proud. What we’ve done and what we’ve achieved has been phenomenal over the years”.
Best of all he treasures memories of Pauly whom he reared from three days old and who lived to be 16: “She used to stand on my shoulder when I drove the car. She would not go in a box. “
Sometimes rescued birds are ringed, indicating they have been previously sold, but Bill said that it can prove very difficult to trace the bird’s origins.
“I do it because I love owls. It’s what keeps me going. They are all different, like human beings, and they can be very, very amenable and cuddly. “
For Bill, barn owls remain his favourite: “They are such a beautiful looking animal and they are so inquisitive.”
Their collection also includes owls they have acquired.
At one time they had 16 different kinds of owl including tawny, little, longeared and Eurasian.
The couple and their team of volunteers give educational and fundraising displays and talks.
But more volunteers are now needed after three of Bill’s unemployed volunteers found paid work.
Bill said: “They’re not only looking after birds – there’s displays as well. We need volunteers who can handle the birds and to do galas and things like that.
“We get them to hold the birds.”
But Bill wants volunteers to have a realistic appreciation of what’s involved in caring for the owls: “They’ve got to do a bit of muck moving first before they get the joy of handling them!”
Barn Owl Bill can be contacted on 07775 746416 or 01772 463221.