Owls back – with a little help from their friends

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The Barn Owl is a quintessential part of British farmland wildlife, but has faced hard times. Robert Fuller tracks their progress in Yorkshire.

Earlier this month after undergoing surgery at York hospital, I came round from the general anaesthetic to see two nurses smiling down at me. I questioned them why they’d woken me up as I was just having a rather nice dream about barn owls.

I work on my paintings of animals and birds all day so I suppose it is not much of a surprise that my dreams are about them too. And it’s got to be said that there’s nothing quite as special as the sight of a barn owl gliding over a darkening landscape.

For the last three years, ever since 80 per cent of the population of barn owls living around my gallery on the Yorkshire Wolds died as a result of a severely prolonged and cold winter, the welfare of these beautiful birds of prey has been at the forefront of my mind.

I have been fascinated with them since childhood. I’m so passionate about them that I, along with several other like-minded individuals, set up a conservation group to address a need for natural nesting sites and suitable habitat. The aim of the Wolds Barn Owl Group is to boost the population of owls across North and East Yorkshire by putting up nest boxes for barn owls and advise landowners on how they can get these birds to thrive on their land. To date I have put up over 150 owl boxes across the Wolds.

Dutch elm disease, which killed off so many trees that had once housed barn owls, is in part to blame, as is the habit of “tidy farming”, or felling the dead and dying hollow trees, which followed.

And so too is the fact that so many old barns, which were the favourite haunt of this bird of prey and even gave it its name, “barn owl”, have been converted for housing or have simply fallen down.

But the main problem is habitat loss which has resulted in their main food supply slowly diminishing. Their staple diet, the short-tailed field vole, lives in long tussocky grassland and traditional hay meadows. But over recent years we have lost 97 per cent of these traditional meadows, mainly because they have been turned over to grow rye grasses which are used for silage and have little benefit for wildlife.

Up until 2010, barn owls had enjoyed decades of good fortune here on the Yorkshire Wolds – in spite of the lack of suitable nesting sites and the odd hiccup of a wet summer.

When I started my barn owl project, nest boxes were being occupied almost as quickly as I could put them up.

The severe cold spell in November of 2010 was devastating. As six foot drifts appeared outside my gallery in Thixendale and snow lay two feet deep on the surrounding fields, temperatures plummeted to as low as minus 16C by night and minus 7C by day.

After the third week of bad weather I started getting phone calls from farmers who were finding dead barn owls in their buildings.

Since 2010 the population has clawed its way back to stable levels. I have continued feeding a few local owls through difficult spells– and there always seems to be a challenge with the weather at the moment. It’s either too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet or too windy.

But where I was once complacent, I now take great delight when I see that a nesting site has become recolonised and I appreciate seeing barn owls hunting all the more.

Just this spring I have seen encouraging signs of a new pair of barn owls hunting together in a valley that hasn’t had owls in it for three years.

Hunting together is a part of their courtship and a great sign they will breed together this year. Courtship hunting can start as early as February but March and April is the best time to witness it.

A good tip is to wait for a few days of poor weather and head out as soon as it clears up. The barn owls are desperate to be out hunting.

The female needs to build herself up, ready for egg laying and so you are very likely to see them in daylight at this time. It really is a special sight to see such beautiful birds flying in tandem along the dale sides.

One day this pair flew right over my head. I hissed like an owl and the male hovered over me – far to close for me to focus my camera. Then he was off again. Next the female turned and hovered as if she had heard something and within a split second I trained my camera on her just before she twisted her wing and plummeted into the grass.

I saw her grabbing at a tussock of cockfoot’s grass and then she reached in with her beak and reappeared with a plump vole.

She flew off to a nearby fence post to polish off her meal. I headed home pleased to note that another valley had been recolonised.

More recently I have only seen the male hunting so I am hoping that she is in the nest box brooding. I am waiting with anticipation. But of course with all my eagerness to find new nesting pairs I have to be careful not to disturb the owls. I never look into a nest box until the breeding season is well underway and the chicks are hatched.

It will take years of good fortune for barn owls to return to their pre-2010 numbers but I can say with confidence that barn owls are definitely back.

And I’m even feeling confident enough to celebrate. From June 1-16 I will be exhibiting a new collection of paintings and limited edition prints featuring barn owls alongside my latest exhibition of wildlife art at my gallery in Thixendale.

There will also be a walk to find roosting owls and I’ll be giving a talk and slideshow all about barn owls at 7.30pm on Saturday, June 8.

There will also be falconry in the gallery courtyard so that visitors can handle a barn owl and plenty of birdwatching and nature walks.

For details of what is happening please visit my website at www.robertefuller.com.

Numbers on the rise in Wolds

It doesn’t sound like a lot, but eight new owls mean a great boost to the population in this area. Fortunately barn owls are one of the only British owls to have two broods a year in a good vole year, which means that eight new owls can lead to many more.

As these new owls left their homes and spread out across the countryside, Robert began to see barn owls appear where they had been absent for months. This winter a female barn owl roosted in the roof space of his workshop and he began feeding her.