Watching out for Barn Owls: part 1

Alex Cripps – Conservation Graduate Trainee

I’m always excited when I see a Barn owl (Tyto alba). They are a magnificent looking birds – so big and powerful. However this beautiful bird faces lots of pressures.

Barn Owl 1 - photo by Mike Nicholas

I joined in a farm walk in late April run by Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) which focused on how to manage land to benefit Barn owls.

The event was held at Birkdale Farm, Terrington – a little outside the National Park. Birkdale is a great example of how farms can be managed to benefit biodiversity in a variety of ways – including through the Cornfield Flowers Project.

The CFE talked about how to avoid using rhodenticides (chemicals to control rodents) if possible, the safe use of rodenticides if necessary, and minimising the inevitable risk of secondary poisoning to other species such as Barn owls.

Robin Arundale from the Yorkshire Wolds Barn Owl Group led the discussion around habitat management for Barn owls. Good habitat is mainly governed by the availability of a food supply (predominately field voles). Areas of rough grassland are important as damp, tussocky grass can support high numbers of field voles. Unfortunately where this habitat remains is often on roadside verges, resulting in a high number of Barn owl and vehicle collisions.

Working with the local drainage board, the banks of the becks running through Birkdale Farm are now only cut on one side per year (on rotation) to manage the becks for water flow and to provide some good scrubby habitat. Several A-frame nest boxes have also been erected, with good Barn owl success over the years. The boxes don’t necessarily need to be in or on a building – in a tree or up a pole also works.

Something I didn’t know was that up to 6% of Barn owl deaths occur in livestock drinking troughs in July, which to me seems like an awful lot. It seems these deaths occur mainly to breeding females when they first leave the nest to clean, after their young have hatched. Barn owls appear to misjudge the steep sided troughs and once wet cannot fly back out. A simple solution could be putting in a plank, with one end at the base of the trough and the other at the top, to provide a platform to walk out on.

Any help to lessen the pressure on the Barn owl sounds like a good thing.

Barn owl in flight_Wildstock images

Have a look at the Barn Owl Trust‘s website for more information. Locally, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are running a campaign to boost the species in Yorkshire. The Trust are interested in sightings – and so are we, let us know if you see a Barn owl in the North York Moors or hear its spooky screech.