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Last Updated: Monday, 1 March, 2004, 18:57 GMT
Bid to halt barn owl decline
By Martin Cassidy
BBC Northern Ireland rural affairs correspondent

The barn owl, once a common bird, has all but disappeared. It is reckoned that fewer than 50 pairs now survive in Northern Ireland.

Many birds have been poisoned while a decline in quiet nesting sites and the small mammals they eat have left the birds homeless and hungry.

Barn owl
The barn owl has highly developed hunting skills
But the owls' problems may have been spotted just in time and conservationists and farmers are now hoping to halt the decline in the population.

Nesting sites for barn owls have become few and far between, but it is old stone buildings which offer the best hope of finding what is now a rare bird.

I went to a remote out-farm near Lough Neagh in the hope of spotting owls which had been seen in the area recently.

The barn was just the sort of place where an owl might feel at home. It was a building which was rarely used and was close to good hunting territory.

We were not kept waiting long. Soon the distinctive call of the barn owl pierced the air and then the bird itself appeared.

And what a bird! Peering down from the rafters of the barn, those massive eyes were perfect for night-time hunting of mice, young rats and shrews.

Seamus Burns of the Ulster Wildlife Trust was watching to see if owls had started to use the special nesting box which he had placed high-up in the roof timbers of the barn.

The barn owl is struggling to retain a foothold in Northern Ireland

"A place like this is great. You have got the inside of the building itself," he said.

"And then in the surrounding farmland you have a range of habitats that have been created as part of agri-environment schemes which will help and encourage barn owls into the area."

Barn owls mate for life and if food is plentiful, a pair can rear two clutches of owlets in a summer.

But food purity is a big issue for owls. Many farms rely on poison to keep down rats and mice.

Almost inevitably, the owls eat the poisoned rodents and then die themselves.

Andrew Cunningham is one of a growing number of farmers who is using the Department of Agriculture's Countryside Management scheme to give the owls a chance.

He said: "My programme around the farm is the minimal use of poisons. I think if you can live with a few mice, they actually encourage the barn owls into your buildings.

"Here in the feed shed we have to rely on cage traps which usually deal with the majority of mice and rats."

On that farm, kale and canola had been planted in a field close to the woods to encourage birds and small mammals out into the clear. Owls need clearings in which to hunt.

In the grassy corridors between the crop the owls hunt at night. Their ears and eyes combine to home in on prey.

'Remarkable bird'

It is said that owls can hear the rustle of a tiny shrew from 30 feet.

But despite their highly developed hunting skills, few birds are left and the barn owl is struggling to retain a foothold in Northern Ireland.

The hope is that with cash incentives under the Department of Agriculture's Countryside Management Scheme, more farmers will feel encouraged to take barn owls under their wing.

With their rich apricot plumage mottled with silvery blue, barn owls bring colour and interest wherever they go.

The next few weeks are critical as the owls seek out nesting sites.

A good hatch of owlets this spring would help stop the population decline and offer hope for the future of this remarkable bird.

Barn owls counting on home help
14 Apr 03  |  Nottinghamshire
British barn owls' survival hopes
09 Apr 03  |  North Yorkshire
First barn owl census for decade
12 Mar 03  |  England
Owls search for good home
19 Dec 02  |  England

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