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Wildlife artist's crusade to save Wolds barn owls
Nest box with owl inside
Robert Fuller and his wife, Victoria, setup a conservation group to protect owl numbers

The enchanting flight of the barn owl was once a common sight in East Yorkshire. But now their frequency could be a thing of the past if the extreme weather returns, warns a wildlife artist.

Robert Fuller does more than just paint birds.

A barn owl conservationist, the artist set up the Wolds Barn Owl Group in 2006 to conserve birds and installed 137 nest boxes on farmland across East and North Yorkshire.

However, the heavy snowfall during November and December last year, which was the worst for over 100 years, has caused their numbers to drop.

Mr Fuller said the owls had struggled to survive without their natural food supply and he had found more than 20 dead birds on the Yorkshire Wolds.

Dead barn owls
Twenty four barn owls were found dead by the artist

"After this terrible weather we've had, we could've lost up to 90% of our barn owls on the Wolds and I'm certainly not going to let the last few die out.

"So I'm going to help them through; build their body weight up because if we get another really bad spell of weather, that's going to really affect them."

Barn owls weigh an average of just 12oz and can survive a maximum of two weeks without food.

They hunt grasslands to feed on mice, voles or shrews. However, heavy snowfall makes it difficult for owls to find food, leaving them to starve.

"The snow lasted for so long that birds continue to hunt but they just became ever weaker and ever more emaciated and just couldn't sustain themselves, so it's impacting on their population really heavily," explained Ian Kendall from the RSPB.

"Normally when the snow retreats you tend to see barn owls then hunting successfully again over the grassland and that's just not happening. We're not seeing barn owls now back at sites where you'd expect to see them."

Robert Fuller
Mr Fuller said his conservation project had been a success until this winter

As part of his voluntary conservation work, the artist regularly attends to some of the nest boxes, especially those situated in the five-mile radius of his home in Thixendale, filling them with dead mice and day-old chicks, which are a by-product from the poultry industry.

"Mice are actually more nutritious for them. But these [day-old chicks] are the next best thing for them to get through this bad spell of weather we've had. I put eight of them in the box and that'll certainly keep them going for the next three or four days," explained Mr Fuller.

"We don't want to stop these birds from hunting but with it being so few of them left, I feel it's very important to get the remaining ones through the winter because we need some breeding nucleus for the spring."

The heavy snowfall during the cold snap has made it difficult for Mr Fuller to reach the nest boxes and of the 30 sites he visited, has only seen four owls alive.

"It's worse than anyone can imagine really, I've got 24 dead barn owls and have only found four live owls… it's basically crisis point that I've got to not let these remaining owls die."

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05 Jan 11 |  Nature & Outdoors
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