Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Wednesday, 7 October 2009 12:15 UK

NI is 'too cold' for barn owls

Barn owl
There are as few as 50 breeding pairs of barn owls left in Northern Ireland

The cold, damp climate in Northern Ireland is a factor in the decline in the local barn owl population, according to wildlife experts.

The Ulster Wildlife Trust's key species officer, Maeve Rafferty, estimates there are as few as 50 breeding pairs left.

She said the disappearance of the bird known as the "farmer's friend" was mainly due to the destruction of their habitat, but she said the weather was also playing a part.

"Barn owls don't actually put on any fat reserves during the winter, which means that they are very poorly insulated," she explained.

She also said that the owls struggle to find prey when there is snow and ice on the ground.

The trust has described the barn owl population estimate as "alarming" and said the birds are a high priority on the list of animals they are aiming to protect.

'Rare'

Although there is not much we can do about the weather, nature reserves manager Ross Towers said the public can help direct conservation efforts by reporting barn owl sightings to the Ulster Wildlife Trust.

The information gathered though public sightings is used to identify hotspots or 'target areas' for barn owl conservation and helps the trust learn more about the habits of the elusive creatures.

"The next best thing is to help out their nesting sites, by retaining old buildings and mature trees," he said.

Barn owl in barn
Barn owls nest in disused farm buildings, ruins and old, isolated trees

He added that farmers can also assist by adhering to best practice methods in their use of chemicals and pest control.

Barn owls sightings are extremely rare.

They are mainly spotted between dusk and dawn, hunting over open countryside in lowland areas.

In Ireland, the barn owl's diet is thought to consist mainly of mice, pygmy shrews and small rats, and their preference for small rodents has earned them the nickname 'farmer's friend'.

The Ulster Wildlife Trust is the lead partner in the implementation of the barn owl "Species Action Plan for Northern Ireland" which was published in 2006.



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