What does the future hold for the Barn Owl in Cheshire?

The barn owls' traditional barn and outbuilding homes have been lost to renovation and development.

The barn owls' traditional barn and outbuilding homes have been lost to renovation and development. - Credit: Andrew Mason

Almost all of us recognise the barn owl, but after the worst nesting season for three decades in 2013, what does the future hold for this icon of the countryside? Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Tom Marshall reports

Although largely nocturnal, it's not unusual to find barn owls feeding during daylight when their bu

Although largely nocturnal, it's not unusual to find barn owls feeding during daylight when their buoyant flight is unmistakeable. - Credit: Margaret Holland

For many of us, the highlight of the school year would be the visit of the ‘bird man’, when, with hands clasped tightly over our eyes, a ghostly white owl would fly inches above our heads, imperceptibly quietly to oohs and aahs of astonishment.

Joe Pimblett from Cheshire Wildlife Trust inspects a barn owl nestbox on their 200 acre farm near Ma

Joe Pimblett from Cheshire Wildlife Trust inspects a barn owl nestbox on their 200 acre farm near Malpas. - Credit: not Archant

The owl, of course, was a barn owl and remains one of the most loved and recognisable of our British birds today, despite pretenders to the throne in the shape of the snowy owl made famous by Harry Potter and his friends.

While the barn owl may regularly appear on our TV screens in everything from car insurance adverts to the daily nestbox soap operas of Springwatch, in reality they remain a rare sight in Cheshire.

So just what is it that captivates us about the barn owl? It could be that distinctive white plumage with honeyed-oranges above the wings, or those silent hunting abilities we recall from the school hall, made possible by the very softest of feathers.

There’s also that unmistakeable heart-shaped face, made up of two ‘disks’ designed for capturing the faintest of sounds, delicately outlined by paint brush-thin dark feathers.

Or perhaps it’s that almost buoyant, nonchalant flight that ends with an unexpected twist and turn of wings before diving into the long grass.

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Whatever the reasons, barn owls remain as popular as ever, which is why news that last year saw what researchers are calling ‘the worst year on record’ for breeding barn owls, should be a concern for anyone who loves wildlife.

In 2013, less than 20 pairs of barn owls nested successfully in Cheshire, a staggering 83 per cent down on the previous season where more than 100 pairs raised a family.

These plummeting numbers have been attributed to the prolonged cold and wet winter the country experienced last year, which saw temperatures tumbling well into March and April. As a result, the British Trust for Ornithology recorded a distressing 280 per cent rise in reports of dead barn owls across the UK in 2013. Those who did make it through, were left in poor health and were much less able to successfully fledge a brood.

Such unseasonal weather was a double-whammy for barn owls, hitting their prey through a drop in vole populations affected by the snow and sub-zero temperatures, while wet weather also restricted their ability to hunt. Super-soft feathers designed for stealth flight don’t work so well when they’re sodden.

Although these occasional ‘crashes’ in breeding numbers are an obvious impact, long term trends for the barn owl often don’t make good reading either. Two factors are thought to be behind the barn owls’ continued struggle in our countryside; loss of feeding habitats, and loss of breeding sites.

Earlier this year, the Wildlife Trusts UK launched their campaign to ‘Save our Vanishing Grasslands’, off the back of figures showing a continued loss of our wildflower-rich meadows – which in Cheshire saw more than a third of sites containing species-rich grasslands disappear from 1997-2010.

These habitats are critical for barn owls, who need large areas of vole-rich feeding areas within at least a mile of their nest sites.

The second big impact on the barn owl is perhaps the most ironic, a loss of the choice of home which gave them their name.

Conversions of rural outbuildings have seen nesting spaces at a premium, and one of the biggest tasks for conservationists in recent years has become the installation of nestboxes across the UK, a strategy that has been spearheaded by organisations such as the Broxton Barn Owl group here in Cheshire.

Among the bad news however, there are glimmers of hope. Last year, at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s largest nature reserve at Gowy Meadows near Ellesmere Port, a pair of barn owls successfully raised an astonishing brood of four chicks, against all the odds and bucking the catastrophic losses seen elsewhere.

There was even more good news this spring, when at our 200 acre wildlife-friendly farm near Malpas another pair of barn owls took up residence, in a specialist nestbox installed just weeks earlier.

But it’s not just about providing a des res for these iconic hunters, which is why groups like the Cheshire Wildlife Trust have been turning their attention to the wider countryside in recent years, a strategy called ‘A Living Landscape’.

This landscape-scale approach to conservation is about re-connecting the habitat links in our countryside, pulling together the pieces of a rural jigsaw that over decades have been lost. From healthy hedgerows to resurgent riversides, the aim is to recreate or restore these natural corridors so wildlife – like barn owl and the voles they feed on – can move freely from one wildlife-rich area to another, between the region’s hundreds of nature reserves and Local Wildlife Sites.

It can often be the small changes too that can make a big difference, like leaving hedgerows that little bit taller so hunting barn owls are carried up and over passing traffic, instead of directly into its path – a continued and huge threat to the species.

Whatever we do – from providing the perfect habitat to a nestbox that offers the ideal location, location, location – there’s still lots to achieve to turnaround the fortunes of one of our favourite birds, so they’re not just a silent childhood memory.

Adopt a barn owl

To help the barn owl, and a whole host of other Cheshire wildlife, the Trust has developed a brand new range of wildlife adoptions – from the tiny dormouse to our half-tonne heroes the Longhorn cattle. These exclusively designed packs are a perfect gift or a treat for yourself, and every time you buy one you’ll be lending a hand to some of your favourite wildlife right here in Cheshire.

To see the whole range visit www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/naturegifts.

See a living landscape in action

There are now a series of self-guided walks you can enjoy across our Living Landscape schemes in Cheshire, giving you the chance to see everything from traditional rural skills like hedge-laying and charcoal burning, to the wildlife that is benefitting like yellowhammers, lapwings, water voles and perhaps even a barn owl!

To download the maps, visit www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/livingwalks