Have you been lucky enough to see a ghostly barn owl silently floating along a hedgerow or ‘quartering’ a field in search of prey? After huge losses, these farmland favourites seem to be making a comeback.
The story so far
The barn owl became one of our rarest breeding birds during a massive decline between the 30's and the 90's. This was likely due to increasing pesticide use and harsh winters affecting prey supply and hunting ability.
Barn owls feed mainly on voles, mice, shrews and small rats, and intensification of farming has reduced habitat for these mammals.
Thankfully, these beautiful birds have shown signs of recovery since a national conservation plan was actioned. Thousands of nest boxes were installed from the mid-90s, with many in the High Weald - some are still here! Some of our local farmers, also created areas of owl hunting habitat. Despite this, barn owls still face challenges to survival, including weather conditions, habitat loss, rodent poison and traffic. The High Weald team is working with farmers and land managers to help barn owls.
Where to see them
Watch out for barn owls flying low at dusk and dawn. You might see them looking for prey over tussocky grassland; lightly-grazed pastures; hedges; ditches; and strips of rough grass alongside fields, woods and rivers. Barn owls find it harder to hunt in windy conditions, so still evenings at first dusk are a good time to try to spot them.
If a barn owl is hunting nearby, try making a squeaking noise by kissing the back of your hand, it may fly over to see what the noise is. If you see owls, you can share your sightings on the iRecord website to help wildlife research. Listen out for them too - barn owls screech rather than hoot - hear the sound on the Barn Owl Trust website.
What can land managers do to help them?
- Erect a well-designed, well-positioned barn owl nest box, not too close to a road, like this 'A' frame box from Gardenature.
- Switch to safer rodent control, the Barn Owl Trust offers alternatives.
- Create owl hunting grounds - leave strips or patches of rough, tussocky grassland at least 4m wide, with a litter layer of dead grass, at least 7cm deep.
- Work with neighbours on managing land for barn owl hunting - in mixed farm landscapes, they need up to 26ha of rough grass within 2km of a suitable nest site. That's about 43km of rough grass field margin.
If you don't have a barn owl nest box on your land and you have suitable rough grassland habitat, you may want to consider applying for a Sussex Lund grant. Teaming up with neighbours to submit a grant application for a joint project stands a better chance of success.
- For more on managing your land for barn owls, visit 'Managing rough grassland' and the Barn Owl Trust website.
- More about the Sussex Lund grants programme.
- Barn owl population trends from the British Trust for Ornithology.