Flight back from danger: Return of the 'ghost owl'

The population of barn owls in Britain has been in such rapid decline that experts feared it faced extinction. But now the 'ghost owl' is making a resurgence in rural areas, reports Cahal Milmo
Click to follow

In parts of central America, folklore dictates that the sighting of a barn owl during daylight is a forewarning of imminent tragedy.

For the past 25 years, in rural Britain, the owl that has silently stalked the earth for prey 10 times longer than humans has been facing its own imminent tragedy - that of extinction.

But now it seems that a sighting of "Old Hushwing" is increasingly to be regarded as evidence of a conservation success story. In just 50 years between 1932 and the early 1980s, numbers of the bird, whose large white face and white wings have also earned it the names "ghost owl" or "death owl", dropped by 70 per cent in Britain to just 4,000 pairs, barely enough to sustain its population.

Conservationists warned that, without a drastic reversal of its fortunes, this most stealthy and ancient of owls, whose fossil records date back two million years, was in danger of disappearing altogether from the British Isles.

The animal was officially listed as an endangered species and given protected status but, despite stabilising in recent years, numbers have stayed stubbornly flat.

But experts believe the barn owl may be experiencing a dramatic revival after a survey led by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) reported a population boom at sites across the country.

A sharp rise in births of barn owl chicks this year coincided with an early start to the breeding season, largely because of a glut of the small rodents that the birds feed on. It is thought many breeding pairs may raise a second brood by the end of the summer.

The result could be a small but significant rise in the population of barn owls as long-term causes of their decline, such as industrial-scale farming, are replaced with conservation-led practices.

Colin Shawyer, of the Wildlife Conservation Partnership, which took part in the survey, said: "These are the earliest egg-laying dates we have seen in 20 years of barn owl recording in Britain.

"Most clutches were started in the first week of April, more than two weeks earlier than average. Young barn owls are already learning how to fly and hunt for their own food."

The expansion in breeding, which has seen clutch sizes rise from an average of three birds to four or five, is down to a large crop of the wild fruits that the rodents which provide barn owls with their prey - field voles, wood mice, brown rats and the common shrew - feed on.

David Glue, a research biologist for the BTO, said: "Last winter, there was an exceptional glut of wild fruits, including beech mast and haws, which was great news for these mammals. The rodents, in turn provide a ready food supply for barn owls."

The resurgence will be a welcome sight in parts of the country where the slow-flying owl, whose mystique is increased by its love of ruined outbuildings, was once a regular visitor.

The birds tend to stay in one place for their average lifespan of five years, using their acute sense of hearing to locate prey when they hunt at night.

A final figure for the current barn owl population will not be available until next year but it is hoped that there could be an overall increase of up to 10 per cent - a significant contribution to efforts to boost numbers to 6,000 within 10 years.

The good year for barn owls, whose Latin name Tyto alba means white owl, is part of a trend of generally improving conditions for the largely nocturnal bird of prey.

Whereas the animals were persecuted by gamekeepers and farmers 25 years ago, they are now actively encouraged as a means of pest control.

A pair of breeding barn owls will normally require up to 4,000 mice in a season to feed their brood, ridding an arable farm of a significant threat to its profit margin.

The destruction of the preferred habitat of the owls, such as grasslands, meadow and rough pasture, has also been slowed and, in some cases, reversed, allowing populations to be re-established in counties from East and West Sussex to Cumbria.

It is hoped that Britain's new farming subsidy regime, which means producers are partly paid according to the environmental stewardship of their land, will further bolster the barn owl's recent recovery.

The areas where the population rises have been strongest, such as Devon, Cornwall and East Yorkshire, are often the areas where efforts to produce suitable habitat have been most stringent - ranging from planning laws requiring rural homes to have roof space for nesting owls to guidelines asking farmers to provide strips of rough grass.

David Ramsden, a senior conservation officer with the Barn Owl Trust, said: "Endangered. At risk. Rare. These are still words which are appropriate to use with the barn owl.

"But if we continue the improvements made in habitat and the climate doesn't go haywire, then we can look forward to a period of increasing barn owl population."

As this year's bumper crop of juvenile barn owls begin to hunt, however, a further human menace means that up to 5,000 of them will be dead by the end of the year - the internal combustion engine.

According the BTO, some 45 per cent of all barn owls are killed every year on the roads as they swoop down to motorway and dual carriageway verges while in the search of food.

The death rate - by far the highest for any species killed on Britain's roads - is thought to account almost single-handedly for the fact that barn owl numbers in heavily populated regions, such as south-east England, are so low.

Mr Ramsden said: "In areas such as the Home Counties, the number of barn owls is in the tens because of the density of the road network.

"The loss of habitat means that grass verges such as those on motorways are among the few fruitful hunting grounds for the barn owls. The problem is that because of the way they hunt, flying slowly and low to the ground, they are hit by cars and lorries as they fly across the roads."

Conservationists are calling for road design to be changed to provide a barrier of hedgerow between the asphalt and verge to make the birds fly higher.

In the meantime, lovers of the screeching owl played down any hopes that its distinctive call, which ranges from a piercing scream to a guttural hiss, will once more become a common sound in the British countryside.

One ornithologist said: "We are doing well but the truth is our way of life does not complement that of the barn owl. For example, I can't see the Government agreeing to line motorways with trees to help an endangered species."

In the meantime, however, bird-lovers will greet the news of the barn owl's resurgence with pleasure.

Back from the brink

RED KITE

With no breeding pairs left in England and Scotland by the end of the 18th century, the bird of prey only avoided extinction because of a handful of birds in mid-Wales. By 1977, the entire Welsh population was traced to one female. With stringent protection of nest sites, the breed began to once more colonise previous areas. A reintroduction programme started in 1989. There are now 430 breeding pairs in the UK from the Chilterns to Scotland.

OTTER

Once a common sight on river banks throughout the UK, the otter suffered a devastating decline from the late 1950s, when pollution killed off their food supply and they were hunted for their fur. By the 1980s, otters had virtually disappeared from England and only small populations remained in Scotland and Wales. A drastic reduction in river pollution and measures such as "otter havens" have reversed the situation. The most recent survey recorded a 527 per cent rise compared to 1979. The Government has pledged to return the population to its 1960s levels by 2010.

LARGE BLUE BUTTERFLY

Maculinea arion became extinct in Britain in 1979. It was reintroduced four years later using butterflies from Sweden and now counts as one of the dramatic recoveries in British conservation. Numbers have now reached 6,000 at 25 sites, the highest level since the 1950s. The butterfly is thought to have died out because farming practices threatened its breeding system.

DARTFORD WARBLER

The recent mild winters have brought today's population of the striking blue and red bird up to 1,900. That is a dramatic improvement on the number of breeding pairs recorded in 1963 - just 12. The Mediterranean species is highly susceptible to harsh winters and retreated to a small corner of Dorset. It has now returned as far north as Suffolk.

LADY SLIPPER ORCHID

Over-exuberant picking by the Victorians and its reliance for reproduction on an unusual fungus combined to make it Britain's rarest flower - its wild population once stood at a single individual. Using laboratory-grown copies of the wild plant, it was first reintroduced to the wild in 1989. The first one flowered in 2000 and 1,500 plants are now thriving in 12 locations.

Jessica Levy

Comments