There has been much talk recently about the plight of our barn owls after two very cold and wet winters. Owls may look big but in fact underneath their supremely soft plumage – which allows them to hunt silently – they are small birds that are very susceptible to wet weather especially.
Many farmers on the Wolds cater for these wonderful birds, myself included. Not only have I created a network of interlinking uncultivated margins around my fields which provide great hunting ‘corridors’ for owls, I have also put up a number of special nest boxes and even provided dead mice on a feeding platform in my granary to try and support them through the worst of the weather.
This approach has really paid off and as a result I have been able to see owls ‘born and bred’ on my farm reaching maturity and thriving. They are a wonderful sight hunting at dusk along my field margins.
So of course it was heart-breaking to find two dead in the winter of 2012 and another two last winter. It feels like we are back at square one, with no families nesting so far this year.
But providing habitats, food and shelter for birds and other wildlife is part and parcel of modern British farming, with farmers required, not just encouraged to adopt environmentally friendly practices.
I believe this is right. My aim is to constantly improve my farm and leave it in the best possible shape for the next generation. We must take our role as custodians seriously and I know vast majority of my farming neighbours take this view.
The result is that I share my farm with many bird species – resident lapwing, skylark and grey partridge as well as visiting red kites, marsh harriers and peregrine falcons. We also have badgers, foxes, roe deer and brown hares plus a few stoats and weasels.
The reason these animals do well is because of the farming practices I adopt. I have been involved with agri-environment schemes for more than 20 years and now manage 20 acres of the farm directly for the benefit of wildlife.
Leaving harvest stubble fields in situ over the winter provides a great source of food for birds. The 2,000 trees I’ve planted will also provide valuable habitats, added to seven miles of mature hedges and acres of low input grassland where a great many insects and small mammals live.
In many ways my farm is not special. It’s not huge and it is not a wildlife ‘sanctuary’. It is a commercial arable business producing cereals such as wheat and barley, oil seed rape and potatoes.
But it is home to a lot of different birds and animals and I welcome them. Last week I saw a solitary barn owl back hunting in the fields. I hope he stays.
A farm walk organised by the Campaign for the Farmed Environment at Phil’s Fox Covert Farm will be held on Thursday, April 24 at 6pm. Attendees will learn about managing a farm to benefit barn owls. To book, call Amanda Cornforth on 07432 562198 or email email@example.com
Phil Duggleby is a member of the National Farmers Union and farms near Wetwang in East Yorkshire.