Photo: Mark Furnell
The Barn Owl – an enigmatic bird of the English countryside. The white owl, almost ghostly, silently quartering the dunes at dusk is something to behold.
Barn Owls are not common on the Northumberland coast and their abundance is patchy. In the UK and across much of the world they are a widespread bird of the rural areas. Research suggests that this bird has suffered declines through the 20th century and is thought to have been adversely affected by organochlorine pesticides such as DDT in the 1950s and '60s. Secondary poisoning and collisions with vehicles now impact on the population.
To survive and breed, Barn Owls need two things; somewhere quiet and dark to nest and roost and areas of rough grassland to hunt for small mammals. Natural grasslands like dunes systems provide good hunting but on farmland, through stewardship schemes, farmers have been rewarded for providing tussocky grass margins around field edges. These edges provide perfect hunting grounds for owls and Kestrels looking for mice and voles. Recent studies suggest that a breeding pair of owls require about 20-25 km of edge like this.
In many areas of the AONB, there are lots of grassy margins on farms but there aren’t the safe places to nest. Barn Owls love a barn – who’d have thought it? They will nest in holes in rotten trees, but they much prefer to be inside a cosy barn. Increased tourism has meant that many old farm buildings have been converted into holiday lets and modern steel and concrete buildings aren’t suitable for owls.
It is well documented that providing nest boxes for Barn Owls increases the population, but we have found that boxes mounted on poles or in trees are commonly occupied by Jackdaws rather than owls.
Our Farming in Protected Landscapes Programme has funded to Coast Care, our volunteering initiative, for a three-year project to create safe places for Barn Owls to nest. The funding will provide nine new nest boxes each year, to be installed on farms across the AONB. Where there aren’t suitable buildings, but the feeding habitat is good, we are building six purpose-built barn owl sheds. These des-res for owls are basically small timber sheds with a nest box in the roof space, built on farmland near to good hunting habitat.
The sheds and nest boxes are built and installed by the brilliant Coast Care volunteer team with expert guidance from Philip Hanmer, a barn owl ringer with many years of experience. Construction is supervised by our own Mark Furnell.
Ringing of adult owls and chicks provides valuable data on how the owls are faring. Philip has recently given a talk to the Coast Care volunteers about Barn Owls and has even trained a few of them to check boxes.
We’ve already had reports from one farmer that he has seen owls using one of the sheds that we built last year so we are hoping for chicks this summer.
If you would like to volunteer with Coast Care, please contact Mark Furnell by email at email@example.com or call him on 07816 603953
If you are a farmer or land owner and you are interested in doing more for Barn Owls, contact Mark Middleton, our farm advisor for more information firstname.lastname@example.org or call him on 07517 555887
Photo: Mark Furnell
Photo: Iain Robson