Hands on approach to saving precious barn owls

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Last week I met with Tony Warburton who is one of the world’s leading owl experts and president of the World Owl Trust.

He had me in stitches as he recounted his adventures around the globe. Back in 1985 the diversity of owls in the Philippines was described by a keeper there as consisting of “a big one, a little one, one you can eat and one you can’t.”

Owl conservation has come a long way since then and it’s a subject that I’m passionate about. I have been asked to be a patron for the Trust and to mark the occasion I travelled to their headquarters at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria to find out more about the work that they do.

Owls are a widespread species; they exist on every continent bar Antarctica. But their ongoing survival is insecure and according to Tony each region needs an ‘on the ground’ solution.

In North and South America, for example, burrowing owls are under threat because the holes they live in are dug by prairie dogs. These mammals have been persecuted because of the damage their holes cause to livestock and so many owls are left without suitable burrows to nest in.

The World Owl Trust has been developing nest boxes to simulate prairie dog holes. But sadly the plight of the burrowing owl isn’t so straightforward. The grasshoppers that they feed on are being killed off by extensive spraying by large wheat farms too.

Here in the UK, barn owls also face difficulties. Although they rate among the best-loved of the UK species, they suffer firstly from lack of suitable nesting sites and secondly from lack of hunting grounds.

I have done a fair amount of work on the conservation of barn owls on the Yorkshire Wolds over the years and have been successful in resolving the first problem - out of 150 barn owl nest boxes I’ve put up, many have been occupied at one time or another.

But the second issue is harder to solve. Last year was disastrous for barn owls. I recorded no barn owl chicks on my patch. I put down this down to a drop in its main source of food, voles.

Tony confirmed that this was also the case across the country and went so far as to suggest that 2013 might have been the worst breeding season since 1958. It’s certainly been a bad time for barn owls, which prior to this had been hit by consecutively hard winters since 2010.

While vole numbers do fluctuate from year to year, last year’s failure can be traced back to the cold spring which meant there was no plant growth for the voles to live in and feed off.

On the Wolds I’ve found barn owl populations to be very fragile due to the scarcity of suitable hunting grounds and the slightest extra pressure, like cold weather, can mean the difference to their survival.

People often don’t see the connection, but without good hunting grounds there will be no voles and without voles there will be no barn owls.

On arable farmland there are now schemes to encourage farmers to leave field margins for rough grassland, after modern farming methods led to the loss of 97 per cent of our traditional hay meadows.

Fortunately here on the Wolds the valleys are too steep to cultivate, although they still only support small vole populations. The only other available hunting grounds are the hazardous roadside verges. Yet sadly many of these have fallen foul of the fashion for keeping the countryside tidy, going beyond mere traffic safety, and are as neatly cropped as lawns, leaving nowhere for a vole to thrive.

If you drive from my gallery at Thixendale to Market Weighton along single track roads - a 30-minute drive - you will cross very few sections of uncut roadside verge. I’ve decided to take the matter into my own hands. I do what I can by feeding the barn owls living close to my gallery in bad weather so that they’re in good enough condition to breed. Barn owls can look quite large in flight but they’re mostly made up of feather and weigh a mere 12oz. To lay a clutch of eggs takes a huge amount of energy, as does dedicating four weeks to brooding. Typically if a female is not in good enough condition she will not attempt to breed.

I trap mice in the garden and put them into my freezer to save them for a rainy day, so to speak. I find barn owls prefer to hunt their own food so it takes a little while for me to get them used to taking food. First I put the thawed mice onto the landing platform outside the nest box. Once they’re happily taking them, I replace them with dead day-old-chicks, a by-product of the egg laying industry. These yellow chicks almost glow in the dark so when I go on to moving the chicks away from the nest site, the owls can spot them.

At the start of winter I got one pair feeding well. One night I pulled up my car near the nest box and saw them flying away into the darkness and I took the opportunity to knock a large fence post into the ground to be their new feeding station. It was a cold and windy night but the male barn owl was used to my visits. He returned and flew around me while I knocked it in with a sledgehammer.

I finished off as quickly as I could and put four chicks onto the post. As I got into my car the owl was up in the ash tree above me. Within minutes it hovered down on to the post and plucked a chick off, before disappearing into the night. I’ve been going most nights to feed this pair and they have got so used to me that if I stand really still, the male will even take chicks off the top of my hat!

I’ll be interested to see how the pairs that I’ve been feeding will get on this breeding season in comparison to others in the area. I may face criticism for my approach, but many of us ‘supplement feed’ our garden birds so why not our owls?

Owl centre seeks new home

The World Owl Trust is currently looking for a new home.

After 26 years as one of Cumbria’s leading tourist attractions, the world acclaimed owl conservation charity is leaving its Muncaster Castle headquarters, which is home to almost 200 owls, following the unexpected termination of an agreement with the Muncaster Estate.

The Trust is seeking to move the Centre, which attracts more than 60,000 visitors a year, to a country park or large estate with a sympathetic landowner.