2013’s poor breeding season
Following a disastrous year for barn owls in 2013, nest boxes this year have been bursting at the seams with chicks! In spring 2013, barn owls struggled to cope with a relentless icy blast that decimated the number of short tailed voles their preferred prey, so barn owls were literally starving to death. Mortality was then extremely high and reports of dead barn owls were reaching the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) of up to 19 per day. These figures involved only ringed birds, so we were seeing just the tip of the iceberg with a significant proportion of the UK’s population perishing.
The project's longest recorded movement so far...
Suffolk's furthest Travelling barn Owl on the Right
Since 2006, the Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project has been responsible for monitoring specially-designed nest boxes and, by 2014, the number of boxes installed had reached 1700. The 2013 severe weather resulted in only 261 boxes being occupied by barn owls and only 66 producing any chicks at all! Most female barn owls failed to gain sufficient weight (340 grammes) to be in good enough condition to breed, so decided to skip a year. However, from one of these boxes came a remarkable movement from Lea Farm, Great Ashfield, near Stowmarket, to Muston in North Leicestershire, a total of 136 Km. Project Area Coordinator and local farmer, Patrick Barker, ringed a brood of two chicks at the farm on 7th August 2013 and one of these (a female) was found incubating a clutch of eggs in a box in North Leicestershire this summer. She raised three chicks in her newly adopted county. Jim Lennon, of South Notts Ringing Group (who monitor boxes in North Leicestershire), said “This was the first time in five years that the box has been used; we had several instances of this. The female was not moulting when caught, and we checked for a second breeding attempt which did not happen in that box, but chicks seem to have got away okay.” Lea Farm, Great Ashfield is farmed by J. Miles and Sons and is a good example of careful grassland management. Farm Worker, Paul Batchelor, is commitment to conservation on their farms and has created feeding and nesting opportunities for barn owls.
|3 Barn Owl chicks that fledged from the same farm in 2012.|
Barn owl chicks are forced out from their nuptial home in early autumn and they have to find partners and then set up territories of their own. However, they tend not to move far, normally no further than six kilometres and often following the course of a river valley, so this movement is quite remarkable. Along with Suffolk, North Leicestershire and South Nottinghamshire are barn owl hotspots, so it’s conceivable that our Suffolk barn owl wandered off in a north-westerly direction until she found good feeding habitat vacated by barn owls that had succumbed to the severe weather?
Barn Owls bounce backNature is remarkable in that it often stages dramatic recoveries and this year our barn owls have demonstrated their resilience to the extremes of our weather. Provisional figures for 2014 show that all records have been broken with 516 boxes being occupied by barn owls! Of these 454 were found with eggs and 415 went on to produce chicks. This total exceeds the county total of 350 breeding pairs recorded in 1938 and 444 occupied boxes in 2012. The number of chicks in each brood was also at the highest since the project began with broods of seven being noted in many parishes. In total, 862 chicks were ringed from over 1000 that were reared and, in addition, of the 56 adult barn owls handled, 34 were already carrying rings.
What do barn owls need?
To sustain good barn owl numbers there must be enough prey. Short tailed voles need a particular type of habitat - rough, tussocky grass that they can move through in tunnels and that provides their own source of food and nesting habitat. This habitat, in close proximity to correctly positioned barn owl nest boxes, provides the ideal conditions for the owls to hunt.
Currently, much of the county’s grassland is ‘managed’ by too much grazing or frequent cutting. The project is committed to offer advice to provide the grassland that barn owls favour across the county – with the benefits extending well beyond barn owls and voles. This habitat is scarce and precious, it holds up entire ecosystems from diverse flora to many species of invertebrates that use it for overwintering.
Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project (SCBOP)
SCBOP is dedicated to the conservation of barn owls. The principal partners are Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Suffolk Ornithologists Group and BTO, but a number of smaller independent projects also fall under the SCBOP umbrella including those administered by Dedham AONB, Stour Valley Project, Thornham Owl Project and Suffolk Owl Sanctuary.
The project as a whole has advised on the fixing of 1700 barn owl nest boxes across Suffolk, on nature reserves, farmland and on community spaces like village greens and school grounds. By providing a connected network of good habitat and nesting opportunities we can give the barn owls the fighting chance they need to thrive. The project involves the whole community and the boxes are made by local organisations and monitored by an army of expert volunteers each year. The results are collated by the project recorder, Alec Hillier, who meticulously records and analyses the data for each box and provide an annual report. This system of raising awareness, creating nesting opportunities and managing suitable nearby habitat is having a positive effect on barn owl populations across Suffolk. This is a project that all Suffolk people can be truly proud of.
In 2015, SCBOP will be 10 years old and there are plans to celebrate its success by holding a series of special events. These will include a lecture tour by Project Manager, Steve Piotrowski, which will start at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay, on 21st January for Waveney River Trust. The tour will take in a number of venues throughout Suffolk and finish at the Rutland Water Bird Fair on August 21st. There will be an all-day workshop for barn owl enthusiasts at SWT’s Lackford Nature Reserve Centre on July 11th (please contact Leslie Walduck of SWT, Brooke House, Ashbocking, for further details) and celebrations will culminate in a fund-raising party at The Cut, Halesworth, with the audience being treated to a special lecture by Dr Colin Shawyer, UK’s leading authority on barn owl conservation and author of The Barn Owl, published by Arlequin Press in 1998.
Finally, some of the barn owl nest boxes are quite old and are showing signs of weathering. To ensure that our barn owls keep their homes, Waveney Bird Club has set up a fund to help pay for repairs and in some cases replace dilapidated boxes. Those wishing to contribute should make cheques payable to Waveney Bird Club and send to: Steve Piotrowski, 96 Beccles Road, Bungay, Suffolk, NR35 1JA.