Wild birds go hungry in the harsh early winter weather conditions

Prolonged severe weather over the last fortnight has been bad news for the region's wildlife. Leading Yorkshire wildlife expert Jean Thorpe believes that barn owls, kingfishers and small insect-eating birds, such as wrens, will be among the worst affected, and urges members of the public to spare a thought for creatures fighting for survival in such harsh conditions.

During the last couple of weeks Jean, who runs Ryedale Wildlife Rehabilitation at her home near Malton, has been caring for a number of stricken barn owls.

"Local farmers are finding them weak and downed," she says. "Last week, I had a female come in from Thornton-le-Dale. I tried to save her with warmth and rehydration fluid, but she only lived a few hours.

"An adult barn owl weighs around 300 grams and this bird was only 211 grams, so had lost almost a third of her body weight. Another two have died this weekend.

"The problem is you can't get to them until they're very weak and go to ground, but by that time it's too late. I've seen a number of barn owls out flying during the day, which is a really bad sign as it means that they're struggling to find food and being forced out to hunt."

Other native owls, such as tawny owls and little owls, eat a more varied diet than barn owls, which feed almost exclusively on small mammals. The thick snow has prevented them from reaching their prey as the little creatures stay under the surface, surviving on grass seeds and whatever else they can find.

Jean added: "The weather is not ideal for any wildlife, but falcons will eat other birds and badgers can manage as they tend to fatten up before winter so that they can conserve energy by staying underground as much as possible.

"Deer will scratch about in the snow to find food and predators, such as foxes, will feed on smaller creatures. "Tiny birds, like wrens, tits and goldcrests, find it hard as they eat insects and have such a low body weight to start with. Kingfishers will suffer because the streams where they feed have been frozen. Experienced kingfishers will head nearer to the coast, where it's slightly warmer, but young birds won't know to do that. It's the same with barn owls. " A sparrow hawk Jean saved and returned to the wild has been back, sitting on the washing line hoping for food

She is caring for a couple of hedgehogs that should be hibernating. An adult should weigh a minimum of 400 grams to survive the winter. Underweight hedgehogs will need to come out to feed and Jean urges anyone who finds one to keep it warm and give it peanuts or dog food.

A long, hard winter could have devastating consequences for some species.

Jean believes we can all do our bit by leaving out peanuts, bird seed and fat balls for garden birds, and providing fresh water .

"Don't just give them bread, give them proper bird food with a really high fat content to help keep them warm. They need water to bathe in to keep their feathers in good condition, which also helps to protect them from the cold."

Jean runs Ryedale Wildlife Rehabilitation on a voluntary basis and is always grateful for support from the public.

To find out more about her work, visit: www.ryedalewildlife.co.uk

CW 11/12/10