Protecting our traditional wildflower meadows and grasslands could be the key to saving the beautiful barn owl. STEPHEN LEWIS reports
THEY are one of our most beautiful and best-loved birds. The sight of a barn owl ghosting silently out of woodland as twilight gathers can make a good day perfect.
But how much longer will we or our children be able to enjoy the presence of these magnificent birds?
Barn owl populations are thought to be at an all-time low in Yorkshire. Across the UK as a whole, their numbers have declined by as much as 70 per cent since the 1930s. There could be as few as 1,000 breeding pairs left, says Dr Rob Stoneman of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
There are several reasons for that. Here in northern Britain, we are at the northern end of the birds’ range. They’re not the most hardy of birds anyway, says Yorkshire Wolds naturalist and wildlife artist Robert Fuller – so they are very susceptible to cold weather.
“Barn owls can look quite large in flight but they are mostly made up of feather and weigh a mere 12 ounces,” he says.
The harsh winter of 2010/11, when for weeks thick coverings of snow lay on the ground, took a heavy toll.
“It was a dreadful winter,” Robert says. “If you get a week of snow, barn owls are getting into difficulty. A fortnight, and they are beginning to starve. Three weeks and they are dying. We had five to six weeks of snow in November and December that year.”
The effect on barn owls was profound. “I picked up 30 dead barn owls around here, frozen, having died of starvation,” Robert says.
The population of Yorkshire owls had just begun to pick up again when, last spring as the birds’ breeding season was about to begin, we suffered another spell of severe cold weather.
The result was predictable. “They just didn’t breed around here at all,” says Robert. “To lay a clutch of eggs takes up a huge amount of energy. Then the effort needed to dedicate up to five weeks to brooding is a huge commitment – and that is even before the owl has to think about finding enough prey to raise its chicks on.”
The run of bad winters up to 2013 has certainly contributed to the fall in numbers of the birds.
But there is another, more long-term problem, too: loss of habitat.
One of the main reasons behind the shocking decline in the number of birds in the UK is the widespread loss of natural grassland, combined with the loss of barn owl nesting sites.
“Since the end of the Second World War, 97 per cent of the UK’s natural lowland grasslands have either been ploughed up or built upon,” says the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Rob Stoneman. “Barn owls also have far fewer nesting sites due to tree loss and barn restoration.”
It may seem odd to talk about loss of grassland, if you look around you at the green pastures of the Vale of York and East Yorkshire.
The problem is that much of this is ‘improved’ pasture land – essentially a monoculture of rye grass. It is perfect for grazing cattle and sheep, says Jono Leadley of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. “But it is very poor for wildlife.”
Barn owls feed on small mammals such as voles and mice.These in turn feed on insects. And for insects to thrive, you need traditional meadows, rich in a range of wildflowers and other plants. It is these that are being lost: and with them all the wild plants and creatures they support – including the barn owl.
There is no easy solution. Improved pasture land may not be good for wildlife, but it is great for grazing sheep and cattle. And we do, after all, have to feed ourselves.
Farmers become understandably weary of being constantly lectured. The historic loss of grassland since the war was the result of government policies which have been long since left behind, a spokesman for the National Farmers’ Union said. “Recent years have seen a real sustained emphasis on environmental management and this is certainly set to continue.”
There are now many agri-environment schemes designed to encourage wildlife-friendly grassland, the NFU says – as well as voluntary initiatives such as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. “So far 677,000 hectares of land nationally are voluntarily managed with the environment in mind through this campaign.”
The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is careful to avoid criticising farmers.
“Many farmers and landowners should be applauded for doing their bit to help protect barn owls and other wildlife as this is making a difference,” Rob Stoneman says.
Nevertheless, more must be done to address the fact that 97 per cent of lowland grasslands in the UK have been lost in the past 60 years.
A couple of weeks ago, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust launched a campaign to to save barn owls. It is asking people to donate £4 a month and wants to raise at least £20,000 to pay for a range of measures to encourage the birds to return and to breed.
Yesterday, in a new initiative, the trust also teamed up with 46 other local wildlife trusts around the country to launch a new campaign, calling on the Government to save Britain’s remaining wildlife-rich natural grasslands.
“The trusts want to see these vital habitats better protected, with farmers and landowners better supported and rewarded for managing wildlife-rich grasslands and more grassland habitats restored across the UK,” says Dr Stoneman.
We would all benefit from preserving our traditional grasslands, Dr Stoneman says – not only barn owls. “Wildlife-rich grasslands provide great benefits to society. They are vital resources for bees and other pollinators which we rely on for food production. Grasslands also secure soils, enabling landscapes to hold and filter water which helps to prevent flooding and pollution.”
But if, by helping ourselves, we could help barn owls make a comeback too, so much the better
THE Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is involved in two barn owls campaigns.
In the first, it is asking people to donate £4 a month to help barn owls recover. The aim is to raise £20,000 for schemes to help encourage the return and successful breeding of the birds in Yorkshire. These schemes include putting up nesting boxes across Yorkshire - these can be surprisingly effective, says Jono Leadley; offering advice to landowners; and even buying some areas of lowland grassland in East and South Yorkshire to manage as traditional meadow.
There are also plans to set up a website which will allow bird-lovers to enter barn owl sightings , so as to build up a comprehensive picture of the local population. To find out more, visit ywt.org.uk/barnowl
The trust has teamed up with 46 other wildlife trusts to call for a review of the way grasslands are protected to ask the government to:
• Improve existing laws on grassland protection
• Reward farmers who manage important grasslands and attach stronger protection requirements to the payments farmers receive for managing land.
• Give key wildlife-rich grassland sites protection as SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest)
• Set up a grassland inventory
• Restore more wildlife-rich grasslands
To find out more, visit ywt.org.uk
JONO LEADLEY of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust gives a personal view on why we need to save our barn owls
I HAVE seen two barn owls in recent weeks. The first, a surprise encounter of a perched bird just outside York, late at night, as I raced into the darkest reaches of the Vale’s countryside to try and catch a glimpse of that mysterious and mesmerising phenomenon known as the Northern Lights.
The second was a sad sight: the pathetic form of a road casualty, lying among the discarded drinks cans and shattered glass on the hard shoulder of the A64, it’s once beautiful tan feathers flapping lifelessly in the tailwind of passing traffic. Regrettably, this is the fate of at least 25% of all young barn owls reared in this country.
It seems to be mainly young birds that are affected as they are pushed out of their territories by adult birds at the end of their breeding season. As the birds disperse, they cross busy roads or attempt to find food along the verges. This often ends in disaster for the young owl.
On top of the losses from traffic collisions, barn owls have suffered through the loss of rough, unimproved lowland grasslands, which deprive them of food-rich hunting grounds. Indeed 97% of such grasslands have been lost in the last century. Also, in some suitable areas, a loss of old trees and barns has prevented the owls from breeding.
Many farmers, landowners and conservation organisations identified these issues and have since been actively helping barn owls and this had stabilised the decline of this beautiful species. But unfortunately, a run of severe winters, followed by a harsh spring in 2013, has set back the recovery of barn owls in the UK.
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust manages over 95 nature reserves across Yorkshire, providing a home to a wide range of fantastic wildlife. Not all of these sites are suitable for barn owls – some are managed for other species of plants and animals. However, many of the nature reserves do support barn owls.
The Trust is trying to help barn owls by raising money through membership and donations to restore further grassland areas and to erect new nestboxes on its nature reserves. The campaign launched at the beginning of March has been a great success so far with many local folk stepping up to help.
Trust staff have been thrilled that lots of farmers and other landowners have offered to put up boxes on their land. There is still a long way to go, but the Trust are optimistic about helping barn owls to recover. If you would like to help, please visit the Trust’s website www.ywt.org.uk. Alternatively, if you own land then you may wish to build or buy your own barn owl nestbox. You can find construction details and suppliers of nestboxes on the Trust’s website.
And did I see the Aurora Borealis? Yes, but from where I was it seemed just like a thin milky strip of cloud. Nowhere near as beautiful as the unexpected ghostly form of that barn owl illuminated in my headlights.