Last month I was staggered to learn how bad things are for barn owls. According to the Barn Owl Trust, this year there are fewer barn owls in Britain than there have ever been. On top of this, the poor spring has meant that there have been fewer young successfully reared than usual.
Barn owls are instantly recognisable, iconic birds. When flying they are large, ghost-like white shapes in the gloom. Perched on a fence post they are neat, heart-faced birds. Their shriek is startling (no polite hoot for them).
Until I went to a talk by the Barn Owl Trust, I’d always assumed that barn owls were doing ok. I’ve had many encounters with them, both in Devon and Hampshire. But thinking about it, I don’t remember seeing any ever in Surrey, nor anywhere else in the last 2-3 years. This is very sad.
There has been a long-term decline in the numbers of barn owls in Britain since the 1930s. Barn owls are farmland birds. While, back in the 1930s, pretty much every farm had a barn owl, now only one farm in 75 is home to a barn owl. This long-term decline is probably largely due to changes in farming practices, with more grassland being intensively grazed, and silage cut twice a year, rather than grass being left to dry into hay. This has reduced the habitat for the small mammals (voles and mice) that make up the barn owl’s diet.
The number of suitable nesting sites (barns, as the name suggests) has also declined dramatically, with many barn conversions not leaving room for barn owls, and new farm buildings often not providing suitable space and access.
Poisons used to kill rodents may also be a threat to barn owls, although the evidence on this is still sketchy. What is known is that more than 90% of dead barn owls studied in 2012 contained rodent poison. What effect this has on the owls is unclear, but with exposure being so common, any problems these poisons do cause would be a large-scale threat.
On top of this long-term decline, the weather in Britain in the last few years has not been good for barn owls. Heavy snows mean the owls can’t hunt so well, meaning more die of starvation. And the poor spring this year has meant breeding has been less successful than usual.
The Barn Owl Trust is working to preserve these beautiful birds. If you would like more information about barn owl boxes, rodenticides or anything else barn owl related, I suggest you look at their website.