Graceful barn owl makes a comeback

SWOOPING across a field in the dusk of a summer's evening, there is nothing finer than the sight of a magnificent barn owl on the wing. And it's a sight that's seen more and more as this most graceful and popular of British birds stages a comeback in Suffolk.

James Marston

SWOOPING across a field in the dusk of a summer's evening, there is nothing finer than the sight of a magnificent barn owl on the wing. And it's a sight that's seen more and more as this most graceful and popular of British birds stages a comeback in Suffolk. Today JAMES MARSTON finds out what's being done to help the barn owl.

IT'S no surprise that the barn owl is one of Britain's favourite birds.

Unmistakeably graceful, elegant and stunningly beautiful, spotting a barn owl is exciting and thrilling.

With magnificent plumage, amazing flying skills and almost mythical status, it's no wonder the bird is a protected species.

Today barn owl numbers in Suffolk are increasing - but it hasn't always been that way.

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Steve Piotrowski, environmental consultant for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, is a barn owl expert.

He said: “The barn owl, back in the 1930s, was common throughout Suffolk. But it declined dramatically from the 1930s onwards and by the 1970s and 1980s was in trouble. There are today about 125 pairs compared to 350 in the 1930s.

“The reason was the increase in intensive farming techniques and the loss of nesting sites.”

Steve said that Dutch elm disease resulted in a loss of hollow trees, the preferred nesting place of the barn owl. This was compounded by barn conversions - a further loss of habitat.

He said: “About 70 per cent of barn owls in Suffolk nest in trees, 30pc in buildings. As livestock farming declined a lot of meadows were ploughed up for arable farming and hedgerows were removed.”

Steve said the barn owl's main prey - the short tailed vole - went into steep decline as grasslands disappeared.

He added: “They didn't have anywhere to nest and didn't have enough food.

Today the barn owl is recovering with the evidence to show the decline has halted.

Steve said: “This may be due to environmental schemes taken up by farmers, which include leaving grassy margins around arable fields which encourage voles and other prey.

“With enough food the barn owl is coming back and we need to aid their recovery by providing places for them to nest.”

And that's where nest boxes come in.

Steve said: “It is very, very encouraging. Last year was a very good year for barn owls and we have been putting up a number of nest boxes. If we didn't they won't breed.”

Nesting from the end of December, throughout January and February and into early March, this year's breeding season is soon coming to an end.

Steve said: “Barn owls live for about five to eight years. It was thought they pair for life but recent research has shown that barn owl males are often bigamists with two families if there is enough food.

“The eggs are laid at different times so if there is a food shortage the oldest chick can eat the youngest chick. They are territorial but if there is enough food they can live quite close to each other and their territories are smaller.”

Choosing a field next to Bawdsey Primary School, Steve said the Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project has put up 550 owl boxes since 2006.

He said: “We target specific areas and have a take up of about 30pc. This field is ideal for barn owls, it is grassland with feeding opportunities but no nesting opportunities.”

Steve said the metre-high triangular boxes are specially designed and put into suitable trees by experts.

He added: “We don't encourage people to build and put up their own. We keep tabs on our barn owls by monitoring the nest sites and ringing the chicks to study dispersal, longevity and the causes of death.

“The information is sent to the British Trust for Ornithology where it contributes to the regional and national picture of the barn owl's status.”

Steve said though not every box is used by barn owls the take-up by other species, including kestrel, stock doves, jackdaws, little owls and tawny owls is 77pc.

Steve added: “The barn owl is something we can do something about and we can see quick results. It is a beautiful bird and traditionally very popular.”

Bawdsey Primary School acting headteacher Rob Duncan is a keen ornithologist.

He said: “We have spotted the birds in the area and the idea is to introduce barn owls into the nest box so they can raise a brood of chicks.

“The school has had its own bird watching club for the last 13 years and we want to see them nesting near the school. The idea is that if they nest in the box we will put in a webcam so we can watch their progress.”

Rob said the birds are “ghostly” when flying.

He added: “They have been endangered and we want to help them recover. When you see them flying you cannot help but admire them as they glide over the grass. They have beautiful plumage. It will be great for the children to observe them as well.”

As the tree surgeon pulls the box into place, Ron spots a little owl disturbed by the commotion from its roost in a nearby bush.

He said barn owls like a clear flight path into the box and do not nest in woodland.

Tree surgeon Paul Jackson said the boxes are based on an A-frame design with a large base.

He added: “The owls can have up to eight chicks so it needs to be quite large. The boxes fit nicely into the trees. They shed water so they don't rot.”

A perch just outside the hole in the upper section of the box allows the adult owls to feed youngsters without them falling out of the nest.

Paul said: “We try to avoid thin bark trees like beech and maple. The boxes also need to face into the open grass area. The boxes are not too high and not too low - about three to four metres high. If it is placed too high the box will attract jackdaws.”

Once the box, which weighs 22kg, is in place up in the fork of a sycamore tree on the edge of the field, Paul removes branches to allow the owls a clear path to the box.

Steve said: “There's a lot flying about looking for somewhere to nest and they are being seen in places they haven't been seen in for 30 years.

“The future is bright for the barn owls in Suffolk as long as we can keep the grassland. The grassland has also led to recovering numbers of skylark, tree sparrow and yellowhammer but the current high price of wheat may make it tempting for farmers to plough the grass. We would urge them to try not to do so if they can.”

Are you a fan of the barn owl? Have you seen one recently? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

Fact file

It is estimated barn owls need about 10,000 voles to raise a family of owlets.

Voles breed every five weeks. It is estimated that a vole born on January 1 would have 33,000 descendants by December 31.

Barn owls also take rats, shrews, field mice and moles.

The barn owl is one of the most widespread species on Earth, occurring on every continent except Antarctica.

The barn owl flies silently and is mostly nocturnal.

Its head swivels 270 degrees

Did you know

There are thought to be 4,000 breeding pairs of barn owls in the UK.

A child's-eye view

Lilac Ford-Brown, ten, said: “I like walking outside and looking at the birds. We've seen collared doves, robins and I've seen a barn owl once while walking with a friend. They are pretty.”

Tigerlily Bradford, ten, said: “I really like bird watching. There are lots and lots of different birds to see. There's a barn owl I've seen in Shottisham and it's often about when we come home from school. It's really beautiful. It would be fun to have one here. They eat mice.”

Amber Snowdon, ten, said: “I enjoying being outside and seeing different birds. I've seen a wren, a Pied wagtail and a collared dove.

“I saw a barn owl near Bawdsey Quay. It has really nice wings and it was flying.”

Grace Lucas, 11, said: “I like to see the pretty birds. It will be good if a barn owl nests here. I have seen one but don't really remember. I'd like to see one again.”

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