Wildlife artist Robert Fuller tracks the barn owls' winter fight for survival

Robert Fuller with a barn owl from the nesting boxes
Robert Fuller with a barn owl from the nesting boxes
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Most evenings I see a barn owl float silently across the darkening sky above my gallery in Thixendale. It is a heartening sight particularly this year since these owls have done well thanks to record numbers of their favourite food, voles.

Their breeding success is remarkable when you consider all the factors that need to be in place for these beautiful white owls to thrive.

Not only do they need somewhere suitable to nest near an ample supply of food, but they cannot even begin to breed if they have not reached a healthy weight after making it through winter.

They also need favourable weather conditions since barn owls have great difficulty hunting during prolonged periods of rain and struggle to survive in sub-zero temperatures.

Over the years, I’ve worked with local farmers to put up more than 150 boxes across the Yorkshire Wolds for these special birds.

My efforts to help them ratcheted up a gear in 2010 after 80 per cent of the region’s barn owl population perished during prolonged winter snows. Each night during that bitter freeze-over I drove across fields of waist-high snow delivering food to the surviving pairs.

Many local farmers got in on the act too and started offering extra food to surviving pairs on their land.

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I continued to support feed a handful of remaining owls so that they could breed the following year and recolonise the area.

In 2019 I got to watch a female lay her first egg of the season via cameras hidden in her nest relaying images to monitors in my studio.

It was fascinating to see the process, right from the time she began spending long spells sitting in a nest scrape at the back of the box, to witnessing her first contractions, four days later, when she began heaving, her tail lifted. I felt quite jubilant, when a short while later, she stood up to reveal a perfect white egg.

This female went on to lay a further three eggs, each at two to three day intervals. She started the long process of incubating as soon as the first egg was laid. Incubation lasts a long 31-32 days and during this period the female only takes the occasional break from the nest to stretch her wings.

She was gallantly supported by her devoted mate who brought in meals for her up to four times a night. These were mainly voles, although there were some shrews delivered as well as the odd mouse.

This male also clearly had an eye on the future because he would mate the female as soon as he had handed over the food. Barn owls can go on to have a second brood if the weather conditions are favourable and food is plentiful.

The first egg hatched at the end of April with the rest hatching in turn, depending on the order that they were laid, two to three days later.

The four barn owl chicks grew fast. At 10 days old each had a thick covering of down. This extra layer of warmth meant the female could leave them for longer periods. It wasn’t long before the chicks started to venture from their tight huddle at the back of the nest box to explore their surroundings.

I watched them climbing up the sides of the nest and flapping their wings to strengthen their muscles ready for their first flights. It was fun to see their wing feathers sprout through.

Soon the most adventurous chick bobbed up and peeked out of the entrance of the nest hole and at nine weeks old the first two chicks fledged the nest. It was magical to see them fly free.

All four owlets remained in the garden for weeks, perfecting their flying skills and learning to hunt for themselves.

Meanwhile, their parents began making plans for a new family! I noticed the pair began to spend more and more time roosting in a new nest box, lovingly preening one another’s facial discs.

Before long the female had laid four more eggs. I was delighted. I’ve never had a second brood here at Fotherdale and now this hard-working and dedicated pair had raised eight chicks in total.

Early in September, I visited more than a dozen sites in the area to record and ring the number of owlets in each box. It turned out that the breeding success I had enjoyed at Fotherdale had been replicated across the whole of the Wolds.

I shared the news with the farmers whose land these nest sites are on. Everyone was so pleased. For many the presence of a barn owl was something to be proud of and I noticed as they swapped stories of spotting these graceful birds how so many of them saw the fact that they had breeding barn owls on their land as a badge of honour.

Then a few weeks ago, I walked down to a nest site near the village of Thixendale. As I approached I thought about how well the pair living there had done this season.

Like the owls closer to home, their breeding cycle started in March and they had worked tirelessly to lay two clutches and provide food for their two growing families long into October.

With all the chicks now fledged, these adults now had a few months off duty, before the whole breeding cycle starts again. Although of course they still had to make it through the coming winter.

As I started to put food on to their post, I shuddered. There at my feet was the body of a dead barn owl. It was a young female, one from the first brood that had fledged this year.

I picked her up. She must have died a day or so before. There was a hole in her head. I suspected a buzzard, as this larger bird of prey will sometimes deliver a sharp puncture wound with its claws. I put her carefully in my rucksack and headed for home with a heavy heart.

Back at my studio, I realised all was not as it seemed. What I suspected was a buzzard attack turned out to be more sinister. This young barn owl had been shot with an air rifle, right between her eyes. The owl would have died instantly, but this was barely the point. I contacted the police and alerted the village on our Thixendale Facebook group.

Messages of support and disbelief zipped across the internet and along phone lines. It wasn’t long before the shock and grief expressed by the community turned to fury. The rich diversity of life so many had worked hard to create and were proud of had been shattered.