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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Barn Owl Success in Westhorpe

In May I wrote about the increased Barn Owl activity around one of our Barn Owl boxes ( Click Here to View) and here is the update...

Barn Owl hunting in Westhorpe - Mike Rae (www.mikerae.com)

Barn Owl breeding has been more a tale of heartache than success in recent years with only one chick fledging from a brood of 3 that hatched last year from 5 eggs. The two chicks that died were both good sizes and the only explanation I can think of for it is that one of the adults vanished and the two chicks starved to death. The most common cause of death for Barn Owls is being hit on the road and the female (I know this as I had the opportunity to ring her in the winter) was left to do all of the hunting on her own. The single chick did fledge which was our first successful breeding since I have been on the farm. Also at our Great Ashfield farm a pair of Barn Owls abandoned a single egg in 2011.

I was quietly optimistic when I saw two birds together on film around the box, one with a ring on which I am hoping is last winter's female and a new male which is unringed.  On 17th April I checked the box for the first time and there was a Barn Owl sitting on 5 eggs that I could see. I was very careful not to scare the Owl out of the box and made sure that she was not disturbed off the eggs. By blocking the entrance hole and using the inspection hatch and a torch I was able to have a good look in the box and then quietly left the area. I should add that Barn Owls are a schedule 1 species, I am an accredited agent of a schedule 1 license holder and it is a criminal offence to disturb a schedule 1 species without a license.

Knowing that the incubation period of Barn Owls is 32 days and they are 53 days from hatching to fledging I had a nervous wait for seven weeks not knowing whether there would be healthy chicks or cold eggs in the box. I was able to see Barn Owls hunting on our grassland and over our neighbours paddocks most evenings so I was fairly optimistic that the news would be good.

I revisited the box on the 9th June to find...


..three good sized, healthy chicks were huddled up in the corner of the box. On the 11h June I ringed the 3 chicks so they are now individuals. I was also able to determine their ages by measuring the 7th primary feather, which is a technique devised by Colin Shawyer and was demonstrated on Springwatch this year. The chicks were as follows - Chick 1 -Ring number -  GC92390, 7th primary feather - 42mm = 36 days old, Chick 2 - GC92391, P7=70mm = 42 days old and Chick 3, P7= 85mm = 45 days old. At the time I was ringing the chicks, the adults were both waiting to bring food into the box so we got them back in as soon as possible and got out of the way so they could be fed whilst the weather was good. I had my worries about the chicks not getting enough food as we had a great deal of heavy rain through June and July as Barn Owls will not hunt in the rain.

At this time I put up the remote camera and left it looking at the box to see if I could capture any good footage of the young owls and they got older, braver and eventually fledging.

After 3 weeks the batteries had run out out on the camera but I had over 300 15 second videos and this is my favourite one showing exactly how a short-tailed vole is eaten by an owlet.

One of the adults bringing food back to the young.

Since the videos were made I have watched the young owls flying around, gradually getting further away from the box but reassuringly the adults always seem to be on hand with food and teaching them how to hunt. Now that four out of five of the birds are ringed we will know if any are found at a later date and be able to trace them back to Westhorpe. PB

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