Notes from a barn owl surveyor

Barn owls remain a favourite with the public, a crepuscular ghostly apparition, quartering meadows and fields in search of prey. Although not that easily seen they are the only owl species to be found on every continent (except Antarctica) so how are they doing in our patch? At MVCP we have a long-standing relationship with this lovely bird, having erected a series of nest boxes from Tonbridge to Maidstone and beyond some 15 years ago following the course of the river Medway.

This of course begs the question why do we survey, is it just curiosity or is there a point to it all? Well, surveying is in part natural curiosity, that particularly British gene which likes to collect and collate. However, without on-going monitoring we simply don’t know how well any species is doing. Not only is it emblematic of our Kentish landscape but it is a good indicator species as to the health, or otherwise, of the wider landscape. If the barn owl isn’t present then the grassland habitats on which it relies are not producing enough prey items (mainly voles and shrews but the occasional bird and frog too). It’s absence may also reflect changing land use practices as old decrepit barns become transformed into homes, and an insufficient number of large mature trees exist to supply nest sites.

The owl itself opens up conversations with land-owners as it can be a good pest-controller. Plus by allowing the longer grassland required to sustain the vole population later into the growing season, this also allows wild flower meadows to develop and persist, offering forage for much needed beneficial insects such as pollinating bumblebees, as well as myriad other species of butterflies and birds.

So how are they doing? Well as it happens quite well, and much of this is down to providing nest sites for them to breed in. Without nest box schemes Colin Shawyer, the barn owl guru, estimates that the UK would have only about 1000 pairs but the BTO now says is is substantially in excess of 4000 pairs, although no one knows for sure.

Barn owls are an open ground species so a box on a large tree over-looking their favoured long grassland habitat, or on a pole erected along a field-margin can both do well. Our preliminary checks this season indicate it will be a reasonable year, with owlets found in 40% of sites monitored and the best brood size 5 at a reliably good site in Yalding.

So if you see a slightly harassed figure, up a tree, balancing on a pole, or being pursued by swarms of wild bees (twice this year), there may be a reason behind it all. If you want to find out more please get in touch.

 

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