Barn owls are flying high again

A A A

Barn owls, the birds most fretted over by the nation's conservationists, are at last responding to years of tender care and attention. Last year, a record number of chicks fledged, and the species, once in seemingly unstoppable decline, is now doing better than it has for decades.

The British Trust for Ornithology and the Barn Owl Conservation Network say 2005 was a "bumper" year, especially in Essex, west Oxfordshire, Cheshire and Somerset. Here, some pairs raised three separate broods, and from elsewhere came reports of the earliest hatchings for 20 years. Cornwall has had a "significant increase" to about 360 pairs, and on Skomer Island in Wales the bird returned for the first time since 1897.

There is hope that the dark days of decline may now be over. Persecuted in the 19th century, barn owls found the next one even less congenial, having to cope with loss of meadows, chemicalised farming, a run of harsh winters, Dutch elm disease destroying nest sites, the demolition or conversion of barns, and that great killer of these low-flying hunters, heavy traffic on major roads. The upshot was a population that collapsed from 12,000 pairs in 1932 to fewer than 4,000 by the 1980s.

But recent years have been kinder. First, a run of dryish, benign winters meant an abundance of voles, the owls' favourite food. Second, campaigners and farmers set aside and maintained more of the birds' preferred habitat of rough grassland. And third is the remarkable conservation effort to save the species. The result, says Dave Leech, head of the BTO's nest record scheme, is that 2005 "was a very good season. We strongly suspect that numbers are higher than for several decades. As long as the climate doesn't change adversely, the prospects are rosy".

No other species has had anything like this pampering. The BTO's monitoring programme is one among an extraordinary number of bodies and schemes devoted to the bird, ranging from the Hawk and Owl Trust, and its Barn Owl Conservation Network, to dozens of local groups.

The most palpable results of this are the 20,000-plus barn owl nesting boxes in British farms and woods - the equivalent of four for every pair. Putting up these boxes represents a huge amount of volunteer hours. Barn owl nesting boxes are not little cubby-holes nailed to a tree, but the size of a dog's kennel.

Next month, around 100 conservationists and volunteers will meet to swap ideas at Britain's biennial Barn Owl Symposium. They will have something to celebrate, but experts caution that a few cold and wet winters could yet check the bird's progress. Jason Ball, the UK co-ordinator for the Barn Owl Conservation Network, said: "We can't be complacent, especially when you consider most nest sites rely on human support."

All about owls: Sharp ears and a shrieking cry

* Barn owls stand 330mm-350mm tall, and have a wingspan of about 900mm. In flight, especially in twilight, the bird can appear white. Aerodynamic feathers mean they are silent fliers, which enables them to use their superb hearing

* They can rotate their heads 270 degrees in each direction, so if they begin from one side's extreme it appears as if they can turn their heads all the way round more than once

* Their acute hearing enables them to pinpoint prey hiding in grass. A disc-shaped face funnels sound towards the hidden, asymmetrically sited ears, with the left pointing slightly down, as the right aims up

* Barn owls mate for life. Some four to six eggs are laid in April or early May. Incubation takes a month, and the young may occupy the nest for three months

* Owls eat their prey whole. Small, black pellets of their prey's fur and bones are regurgitated from the mouth. This happens about twice a day.

* The barn owl's call is a spooky shriek and they are also known as screech owls. It is the tawny owl that has the famed "toowit-towoo" hoot

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?