Winter wipe-out of my familiar barn owls

There's nothing quite as uplifting as the sight of a barn owl gliding silently over a snowy landscape.

But these beautiful birds have become one of the most tragic casualties of the recent cold snap.

We have had the coldest December since records began 100 years ago, and barn owls are dying in shocking numbers.

I fear it could take 10 to 15 years for the population across the Yorkshire Wolds to recover.

One of the saddest sights I've encountered this season was a pair of barn owls which had starved to death, the male with its wing lying protectively over the female.

Barn owls are my favourite British bird and the one that I have painted more than any other.

So it has been hard to stomach the sight of so many of them becoming casualties on the Yorkshire Wolds over the last month – and what hurts is that these are some of the very birds that have featured in my paintings.

Some years ago, I co-founded a group to try to support these fragile creatures across North and East Yorkshire.

Since its inception, the Wolds Barn Owl Group has successfully erected more than 200 nesting boxes on farms throughout the area, and each year I've taken pleasure in watching the boxes becoming occupied.

It is always a thrill to see a clutch of owlets in the summer and then to observe their progress.

Over Christmas, I decided to steel myself and try to count the total number who had fallen victim to the cruel weather because they had been unable to find food, such as voles, under the thick covering of snow.

Looking for casualties has been grim work. The bad news had actually started coming in during mid-December, three weeks into the big freeze.

A local farmer rang to say he had found a dead barn owl in one of his buildings.

In spite of their appearance in flight, barn owls are a featherweight, fragile bird, weighing in at an average of 12oz.

A bird in peak condition will survive for just two weeks without sufficient food.

Later the same day, another phone call confirmed two more dead owls. This news was particularly upsetting as this was a pair that I knew well. I photographed them often and the two had become the subject of several of my paintings.

By the weekend, I was up to 10 barn owls, all reported dead – probably of starvation.

Barn owls, as their name suggests, live mainly in farm buildings.

This can be part of their downfall as they are much more susceptible to being inadvertently poisoned after catching mice and rats that have eaten poison.

Some barn owls live out in the countryside, roosting in hollow trees. But in bad weather they tend to be drawn to barns for shelter and food where they are then at a greater risk of being poisoned.

There was a slight thaw in the weather in mid-December, so I took the opportunity to see how bad the problem was.

I headed up a dale side to some derelict farm buildings where one owl had been reported dead. This was the first nest box I put up and it has been occupied for 11 years.

Getting up the dale was a challenge, but my Land Cruiser made good headway through the snow. As I reached the head of the valley, large drifts had blown off the arable fields and, with the thaw, had turned to a glue-like sludge.

I drove into them and came to an abrupt stop. I reversed and had another go but only gained a few metres.

It took me 10 minutes of shovelling snow, then backing up and driving forward bit

by bit before I was through and able to cross to the

sheds.

I opened the large barn door and immediately saw some barn owl pellets. Sadly, they were not fresh.

I climbed up into the loft, but saw no sign of any barn owls, dead or alive.

As I left and closed the door behind me, the building felt very empty. I felt so angry with the weather.

There was no time to waste though as I had to go to the next site.

Carrying half a bucket of mice and some young rats freshly caught in traps in my garden, I planned to supplement the feed any still-living owls I could find.

Leaving mice, rats and day-old chicks close to where barn owls nest is a way to keep these birds alive during this difficult time.

In fact, this month I have offered buckets of rodents to some local farmers where I knew there had been breeding pairs. After all, many of us feed garden birds without a second thought.

I travelled up a long valley to another box in a tree. The occupants had raised four chicks there his summer. As I went up a ladder, I felt nervous about what I would find.

Again, the box was empty and there was no sign of recent use.

The next site was a mile away and there again there were no fresh signs of occupancy. This box too had housed a pair and three chicks last summer.

I checked the stack yard and my hopes were raised slightly when I spotted white droppings, but on closer inspection these were left by a kestrel roosting.

It was starting to get dark when I reached the next box, again sited in derelict farm buildings.

Inside the nest box were two dead barn owls. The male had his wing over the female, both had died of starvation. It was the saddest sight I have ever seen.

As the evening closed in, the temperature dropped, giving me a real sense of how these birds perish. I was beginning to lose hope of finding any survivors in the area.

But, thankfully, in the next set of buildings, in the light of my head torch I spotted a couple of fresh pellets.

As I put my ladder up to take a look in the box, a barn owl flew out. It was such a relief to find one alive after such a long day of disappointment.

I was determined to help it and left eight mice just outside the box for it.

But when I went back next morning, the mice were still there and had frozen solid. There was no further sign of the barn owl that day.

In the barn were some straw stacks – popular places for owls since they are warmer. I climbed on top of one and straightaway spotted a dead barn owl slumped on top of one of the bales.

I picked her up and shortly afterwards spotted another dead. Unusually, both of the birds were female.

The next day, however, all the mice had gone at this farm.

I was determined to keep this survivor alive and bought an electric propagator (designed to raise seedlings) to stop the mice I had left from freezing.

As I ran the extension cable to the shed, I found another female dead in the corner of an adjacent building. So, three dead barn owls in the one farm.

Just three fields away in the neighbouring farm, four more were reported dead.

When I set off again on my search, I found nest box after nest box empty. In all, I visited 25 owl boxes throughout December and found just two live barn owls.

I have since had some reports of sightings, although none at all in the past two weeks. I brought home 21 carcasses from my tours.

Just a few weeks before the big freeze, these nest boxes would have been occupied by a breeding pair of barn owls.

No doubt some of these owls will have been displaced by the bad weather, but I fear most have perished. And, potentially, the worst of the winter is still to come.

As I sat in my kitchen with my head in my hands contemplating the scale of the loss, I glanced out of the window to see a female barn owl fly past.

I regularly put food out for this one and it was heartening to see that she is still alive and well.

I felt a glimmer of hope which strengthened as we moved into the New Year when I found four live owls that I managed to get feeding.

I then heard some good news from the farmers to whom I had given food.

One reported that he had three pairs feeding from nest boxes; another was feeding two owls and a third farmer confirmed that one owl had survived.

These precious few will be the founders of the next generation on the Wolds.

Robert E Fuller, Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale, Malton, YO17 9LS, UK. 01759 368355, mail@robertefuller.com

CW 15/1/11