Do goblins tickle feet in Siberia?

Do goblins tickle feet in Siberia? Author reveals the strange beliefs of a recluse he stayed with during his quest to find the earth’s biggest owls in Russia

  • Jonathan C. Slaght documented his quest to track down the earth’s biggest owls
  • Blakiston’s fish owl is mostly found in the East Russian province of Primorye
  • Author was hosted by a hermit who thinks goblins tickle his feet while he sleeps



by Jonathan C. Slaght (Allen Lane £20, 368 pp)

As Ideas for 300-plus-page books go, a bloke looking for owls might not sound very appealing. Yet Jonathan C. Slaght’s account of his quest to track down and protect the biggest owls on Earth is never less than gripping, and at times eye-popping.

Just in case you’re not familiar with Blakiston’s fish owl, it is more than 2 ft tall. The species is also endangered, with many of those that remain found in the remote East Russian province of Primorye.

Jonathan C. Slaght has penned a book about his quest to track down and protect the biggest owls on earth, Blakiston’s fish owl

Slaght writes with unfailing vividness about this strange region of the world which few of us are ever likely to visit.

Primorye, it turns out, is a place of great natural beauty, where ice-bound winters and sudden spring thaws pretty much guarantee an ornithologist hair-raising adventures. It’s also populated by all manner of odd creatures, quite a lot of them human.

At one point, Slaght (pictured) and his Russian colleagues stay with a man who has dozens of red deer penises nailed to the wall of his shed. At another, they’re hosted by a hermit called Anatoliy, who believes goblins tickle his feet while he’s asleep and that ‘the nearby mountain was hollow and inhabited by men in white robes’.

As for how most people cope with life out there, the answer seems straightforward: they get drunk. They are hospitable, too, showing up at his cabin with moose meat and four-litre bottles of ethanol. Slaght also encounters drunken policemen, drunken mayors and drunken doctors.

OWLS OF THE EASTERN ICE by Jonathan C. Slaght (Allen Lane £20, 368 pp)

Meanwhile, he has fish owls to find. Given their size, you might think this wouldn’t be too tricky, but you’d be wrong. He braves any number of icy dangers in -30c temperatures to visit promising forest habitats, yet not until page 62 does he spot so much as a fish owl footprint in the snow.

At one exciting moment, he finds ‘the carpeted whitewash of fish owl excrement’. Gradually, he becomes impressively adept at recognising the kind of tall, rotting trees that provide the perfect setting for their nests, and the kind of salmon-rich rivers where they hunt.

Now all he has to do is capture some and fit them with radio transmitters so he can find out which parts of Primorye they inhabit and should therefore be protected from loggers.

But even then there’s a problem, because the only reliable way he knows to sex a captured owl is to ‘sexually stimulate it. If the bird ejaculated, it was a male; if not, it was a female’. Understandably, this is a technique he’s reluctant to use, so he relies instead on the general rule that females are heavier and more aggressive when you try to fit a radio transmitter to them.

Now and again, Slaght overdoes the detail. When chronicling his many sorties, he brings to mind those middle-aged men at weddings who love to explain exactly which route they took to get there. Nonetheless, he proves extremely good company, with a neat turn of phrase and a keen eye for comedy.

Primorye is also the home of the Siberian tiger, a creature glamorous enough, as Slaght puts it rather bitterly, to have attracted support from ‘the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Naomi Campbell’.

If there’s any justice, this book should ensure that the world’s largest owl now gets the same level of attention.

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