Country and Gardens: Nature Notes

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The Independent Culture
EVERY TIME a disused barn is turned into a dwelling for human beings, barn owls lose a potential nesting site - and the huge number of conversions made in recent years has been one reason for the decline of our most spectacular night bird. Farmers used to regard barn owls highly because they killed so many rats and mice, and barns were often built with holes near the gables in the outer walls, to make good nesting sites for them.

Another cause of decline has been the reduction in the area of rough pasture; long grass makes good breeding and living territory for voles, which are one of the owl's staple foods. A third depressant has been the ever-increasing volume of traffic; owls tend to hunt low over roads, and are frequently killed by cars.

In spite of all these hazards, barn owl numbers seem to be picking up slightly. The latest survey carried out by the Hawk and Owl Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology suggests that the British population has stabilised at about 4,000 pairs. This is good news, for the sight of a white owl flitting silently through the moonlight is enchanting. Only the bird's call disappoints. Instead of the fruity hoo hoo given out by tawny owls, it utters nothing more romantic than a thin, dry screech.

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