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Barn Owls - A Story Of Our Times

A pair of barn owls used to nest in an ancient oak on a field margin next to our old house. They were there for several years and bred lots of rackety owlets, who would sometimes sit on the five bar gate up the lane. I was heart broken to find both parents dead in the hedge one day. They are such charismatic and beautiful animals, and over time I had begun to feel a real bond with them.  

How did they die? I think most likely starvation. Their soft feathers help them fly silently but they're not waterproof, so barn owls can't hunt in poor weather. We're not known for our lack of rainfall in Somerset, so living here can be a challenge for them.

Like many animals, climate change is making their lives more difficult. Prolonged periods of heavy rainfall are disastrous for them.

Man creates huge problems for them more directly too. Noise and light pollution are at best tricky for them and lethal at worst. We live in the countryside but still suffer from both, and once you've stood in the garden at night for a bit you realise how bad it is. 

We're lucky that we don't live near a main road, which - depending on its landscaping - would be a deathtrap for owls. A while ago The Barn Owl Trust estimated that the UK's (tiny) population of 4,000 breeding pairs produced around 12,000 young in an average year. They reckoned up to 5,000 are killed by traffic. It's a terrible slaughter.

Barn Owls end up drowning in water troughs as they can't negotiate their steep sides. Others collide with power lines. Most birds have high levels of rodenticide in them. 

It seems miraculous they survive at all.

We're making all these problems. We can certainly mitigate the damage we're doing. We can screen roadsides, bury powerlines, put floats in water troughs, stop using rat poison. We can turn lights off. Bottom line is though that we're endangering these birds - and the broader ecosystem - just by being here and living the lives we do. 

There's another moral to this story though - and - you'll be pleased to hear - a more cheerful one.

When we moved house we wanted to renew our acquitance with these beautiful birds. We created tussocky grassland around our meadow areas and the vole population went crazy. We have no cats, and without owls the only predators they seemed to have was a family of grass snakes. We're surrounded by pasture too, which is helpful. Habitat creation - tick.

The next step was putting up a nest box. We were rather optimistic with our first site and, after a few years, put a replacement box (of the type we sell) on a mature tree just outside the garden. A couple of years later the owls arrived. We spotted a feather in the garden, then the unmistakable male mating call. A few weeks later and we heard owlets again. We see the adults gliding like ghosts in the dusk, bringing prey back to the nest (sorry - my photographic skills not up to recording them!). As I write, I have everything crossed that our breeding pair like it here and stay, and that their young negotiate all the dangers ahead of them. We'll do everything we can to help them.

We can all do something to stop the relentless assault on nature that's going on. OK, we live in the country and have a little land, but down to the smallest window box our actions have direct results. A little research, some work and some imagination is all we need. From the 4,000 breeding Barn Owl pairs I mentioned earlier in the 1990s we think numbers have recovered to around 9,000 . Still very low, but...