Page last updated at 09:36 GMT, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 10:36 UK

Owls replace pesticides in Israel

Farmers are installing nest boxes to encourage the owls

Owls and kestrels are being employed as agricultural pest controllers in the Middle East.

Many farmers are installing nest boxes to encourage the birds, which hunt the crop-damaging rodents.

In Israel, where there is a drive to reduce the use of toxic chemical pesticides, this has been turned into a government-funded national programme.

Jordanian and Palestinian scientists and conservation charities have joined the scheme.

According to the charity BirdLife International, hundreds of birds of prey - including many endangered species - have been killed in the region through eating rodents containing poisonous "rodenticides" sprayed on to crop fields.

But scientists in Israel are now working with farmers to combat this problem - deploying the birds as natural pest controllers.

"There is a real need to reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture here," said Motti Charter, a researcher from Tel Aviv University and team leader of the Global Owl Project in Israel.

No boundaries

"Many farmers think that chemicals are their only option. They use very large amounts of them - spraying them on to their fields from planes," said Mr Charter.

Barn owl nest boxes
Barn owl nest boxes can be installed very close together in Israel

"We have been reaching out to the farmers, to encourage them to reduce their use of rodenticides and install nest boxes instead."

The scheme started in 1983, when a few nesting boxes were erected near a kibbutz, or farming village, in the Bet-She'an Valley, south of the Sea of Galilee.

The project has gradually been expanded to include boxes for nesting kestrels.

"Kestrels hunt during the day and barn owls at night," said Mr Charter.

"This constant 24-hour threat of predation has caused changes in the pests' behaviour, resulting in less crop damage."

According to the World Owl Trust, who have funded some of Mr Charter's research, there are currently about 1,000 barn owl nest boxes in various locations around Israel.

Kestrel chicks
Along with owls, kestrels provide 24-hour pest control

The trust has even installed a webcam in one of those boxes.

Because the sub-species of barn owl in Israel is less territorial than those in Europe, and because the population of rodents is stable throughout the year, the nest boxes can be placed relatively close together.

"Jordan recently came on board to take part in the scheme," said Tony Warburton, honourary president of the World Owl Trust. "So the project is really bringing people together."

Mr Charter added: "The birds will nest wherever there is food and a suitable habitat. They don't know the national boundaries."

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