Malaysian rats save British barn owls

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The Independent Online

Rats in Malaysia have saved the British barn owl. A solution introduced by palm plantation owners to stop rats eating their fruit has been imported and led to the numbers of barn owls, whose population had plunged by 70 per cent since the Thirties, becoming stable again.

Rats in Malaysia have saved the British barn owl. A solution introduced by palm plantation owners to stop rats eating their fruit has been imported and led to the numbers of barn owls, whose population had plunged by 70 per cent since the Thirties, becoming stable again.

Colin Shawyer, the director of the Hawk and Owl Trust, told the British Association: "There used to be huge losses on the plantations because rats would eat the fruit. They tried poisons but decided to use a natural solution - by encouraging wild barn owls to nest near the trees to feed on the rats." They set nesting boxes - 2ft cubes on 10ft stilts - and fruit harvests soared.

The trust decided to try the boxes in Britain, where, from an estimated 12,000 breeding pairs of wild barn owls in 1932, the number had fallen to 3,800 by 1989. Now there are 1,000 boxes near rivers and waterways and up to 80 per cent of them are inhabited. The latest figures show 4,000 breeding pairs.

Though barn owls will happily live in barns, they need to be close to a river, where the animals they feed on - such as rats and voles - live. "Ten years ago, 80 per cent of barn owls lived within 1km of a river," said Mr Shawyer. "That's because if they live further away then it can be too exhausting to carry their prey back to their nests."

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