Busy roads, barn conversions, golf courses have all but done for the farmer's friend. Now the hunt is on for Old Hushwing

Tracking down Old Hushwing was not going to be easy, especially among the manicured golf courses and exclusive housing developments of the stockbroker belt.

"I don't think we are going to be lucky here," said Monica Johnson, striding across a field towards a line of willow trees sheltering a stagnant brook. "It's almost the right habitat - fairly long, tussocky grass near to woods - but it's too built up all around and there are no derelict buildings, no barns."

A member of the Hawk and Owl Trust, Monica was initiating me in the ways of the barn owl, traditionally known as the farmer's friend for its success in keeping down rodents. So valued were the birds that farmers used to build owl holes in their barn gables to allow them easy access.

However, the barn owl is in such steep decline it has been declared a threatened species and a major effort is under way to save it. Fewer than 4,000 pairs remain in Britain, and here in Surrey, where Monica was training me as a Project Barn Owl volunteer, there are 34 pairs at most, making it one of the worst-hit regions.

Project Barn Owl - a three-year-survey run by the Hawk and Owl Trust with the British Trust for Ornithology, and designed to provide the most accurate total yet of the British barn owl population - is nearing the end of its first year.

According to Humphrey Crick from the BTO, early reports from volunteers are positive, showing that new barn owl nest boxes have been spotted in a large number of the 1,100 4km sq slabs of land that are being monitored. However, Mr Crick and others striving to save this beautiful bird will not be able to predict its fate until the spring.

Knowing the owl's susceptibility to cold and wet weather (Britain is its most northerly European outpost), conservationists are aware the approaching winter could be crucial to the survival of the species here.

As Monica peered up into the branches of a rough, sturdy oak, she explained that the volunteers are trained to espy possible nest sites by searching for the tell-tale signs of white, paint-like stripes left by droppings and the presence of regurgitated food pellets. If lucky, she said craning her neck to get a better view up the oak's trunk, the volunteer might catch a glimpse of Old Hushwing swooping silently across a field at dusk on its wide, soft-feathered wings, or hear its distinctive cry.

It does not hoot like its tawny cousin, but makes a high-pitched rasping shriek which has earned it its other nickname, the "screech owl".

Observations provided by the volunteers will give conservationists essential information on which to base annual monitoring and a 10-yearly survey, and predict what effects future changes to the rural landscape will have on the bird. In short, they will have a pretty good idea of how close to extinction the barn owl is in Britain and how to save it.

Fears for the future of this magnificent bird of the night are justified, now so much of its countryside habitat has been destroyed. Project Barn Owl was set up in response to frightening statistics thrown up by a survey 10 years ago which found that Britain's barn owl population had plummeted by 70 per cent since the 1930s.

The four counties that suffered most were North Yorkshire (which lost 89 per cent), Leicestershire and Rutland (90 per cent), Middlesex (93 per cent) and Hertfordshire where the population fell from 210 pairs in 1932 to just 10 in 1985 - a 95 per cent drop.

Changes in farming practice, especially the destruction of rough grassland and hedgerows (home to numerous small mammals which make up the majority of the barn owl's diet), and increasing traffic and road-building were mainly to blame. In the 50 years to 1985, as many as 5,000 barn owls were killed on the roads each year and a number also died of poisoning from agricultural rodenticides.

More recently, the drive to convert barns and other farm outbuildings into studios, garages or rural hideaways for city folk has meant many birds being turfed out of their homes.

Barn owls will inhabit holes in dead trees and nest boxes and have been found nesting in quarries, dams and bridges, even a windmill, but they are fussy about their homes and really only like barns. Ideally, says the BTO, barns should not be converted, but if they are, then the least owners should do is put up a nest box near by to give the owls alternative accommodation.

Another cause of their decline has been the severe winters and the increase in snow cover that Britain has experienced during the last 50 years.

In our patch of Surrey, Monica made plain, we were not going to be able to improve the statistics. Clumps of densely packed houses covered most of the study area, separated by young healthy trees, without a nest hole in sight. Patches of open space had been given over to intensive market gardening and golf courses with close-cropped fairways.

"Everybody's obsessed with neatness," said Monica as we neared a dead tree she had spotted earlier. "Here in Surrey everything is so tidy. What's wrong with wild, scruffy areas? They are essential for all sorts of wildlife, especially barn owls."

The tree stood next to the deserted 10th fairway on a municipal golf course, in the shadow of a humming electricity pylon. Its skeletal branches twisted skyward above the green canopy of horse chestnut around it.

We crept up to its trunk, picking our way between fallen branches. The copse was silent and still. The late-summer sunlight trickled through the leaves. There was a hole, two holes. And odd dark stains on the bark. We ran through our checklist. There were good hunting grounds near by, in an unkempt meadow lying to the south, no doubt harbouring a wealth of voles and mice. No barns around, but this tree was perfect with its inviting holes. Surely this was our quarry's lair.

"No," said Monica after a brief examination of the holes.

"There are no droppings, no white stripes. It might be home to a tawny, but not a barn owl."

This had been our last chance to find Old Hushwing in this corner of Britain and we had failed. In an area that might once have been a healthy mixture of scrub and farmland and which would quite probably have housed several pairs of barn owls, there was now not one.

Valuable as our negative report would be to Project Barn Owl, it was none the less disappointing to confirm conservationists' fears that this majestic bird is, indeed, in serious trouble.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee