The barn owl, one of Britain's most reclusive, yet most treasured birds, is facing extinction in many parts of the UK. The population of barn owls now stands at just 4,000 pairs, a drop of 70 per cent since the 1930s, according to a new survey by conservationists.
A 10-year research project carried out by the Barn Owl Trust has found that the owls, distin-guished by their white and golden-buff colourings, have disappeared from 40 per cent of rural England and that numbers have dipped close to that required to maintain a viable population.
The main reason for the decline of the bird is the construction of trunk roads and dual carriageways through Britain's countryside. Motor vehicles exact a devastating toll, and the survey found that 72 per cent of barn owls that encounter a major road are killed and that half of all known barn owl deaths occur on roads. Adult barn owls that nest within 500 yards of a road are almost certain to be killed during the nesting season.
Conservationists believe the findings have grave implications for the future of the bird.
"Their numbers are now very, very low," said David Ramsden, senior conservation officer with the Barn Owl Trust. "The barn owl is a flagship species and indicator of how we look after the environment. There is a chance that the barn owl could disappear entirely from some parts of Britain. There are only a few pairs left in the Home Counties, and that is an area with lots of major roads.
"I was quite amazed at the findings. This is the first evidence that major roads are a main cause of declining barn owl numbers. The fact is that 75 per cent of all barn owls encounter roads. Britain's barn owls annually produce 10,000 young. Every year, between 3,000 and 5,000 of these young are killed on the roads."
The greatest toll, according to the Major Road Research Project, carried out in conjunction with Birmingham University and the British Trust for Ornithology, is on juvenile barn owls. They are more active than adult birds and frequently fly low over roads while moving between wooded areas. Of equal concern is that the juveniles that die on roads are birds that would otherwise almost certainly have survived into adulthood.
The Barn Owl Trust argues that responsibility for reducing the death toll lies with the Government and planning authorities. The trust is calling on the Government to re-think highway planning policies and to plant continuous hedges and lines of trees on verges to deter owls from flying low over roads.
A spokeswoman for the Highways Agency said it was committed to minimising the impact of the trunk road network and to reducing the level of deaths in the barn owl population.
¿ The barn owl is also known as the white owl and "Old Hushwing", a name derived from its silent flight.
¿ An adult barn owl is about 13in tall and has a 34in wingspan.
¿ Barn owls mainly feed on voles, shrews and wood mice.
¿ Contrary to popular perception, barn owls cannot see in the dark. Neither do they hoot.
¿ The first barn owls appeared two million years ago.
¿ Wild barn owls rarely live for more than five years.
¿ Despite their name, they do not only live in farmyards. Their habitat includes rough grassland, woodland edges and hedgerows.
For more information, visit www.barnowltrust.org.uk