Barn owls suffer worst year on record

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Barn owls suffered their worst year on record in 2013 as they struggled in the bitterly cold spring, conservationists have said. Results from monitoring schemes around the UK revealed the number of sites where nesting took place last year was significantly down in every area compared to previous years, and some surveys found no nests with eggs in at all.

A barn owl in flight. Photograph: Marlene Finlayson / Alamy/Alamy

Overall the number of occupied nests was down 71% on the average across all previous years, according to the Barn Owl Trust, which collated the information from 21 independent groups stretching from Jersey in the Channel Islands to south-west Scotland.

A survey in Berkshire which normally finds 14 nests in use and a surveyor in Yorkshire who normally finds 25-30 occupied nests both found none at all, while surveys in Buckinghamshire and Sussex were both down more than 90% on normal levels.

Conservationists described the situation as the “worst year ever recorded” for the flagship farmland species.

The dramatic drop in nesting was largely down to the freezing spring in 2013, with the coldest March since 1962 which left many barn owls dead, a report by the Barn Owl Trust said.

Almost four times as many dead barn owls were reported to the British Trust for Ornithology in March 2013 than normal and by mid-April it was possible that there were fewer barn owls alive in the UK than at any time since records began, the report said.

David Ramsden, senior conservation officer for the Barn Owl Trust said: “It’s a lot to do with the fact that March was like January. Just when it should be getting warmer and mortality should have been dropping, it continued.”

The icy weather, which reduced the availability of the bird’s small mammal prey, was the latest in a series of extreme weather events going back to 2009 which had hit barn owl populations, he said.

“If we stop having frequent extreme weather events the population could recover in a couple of years to what it was before the extreme weather events began in December 2009.”

But even those population levels were not terribly high, as the barn owl had suffered a historical decline from the mid 1800s through to the late 1980s, as a result of increasingly intensive agriculture which affected barn owls’ habitat and prey.

A survey in the late 1990s revealed there were around 4,000 pairs.

Ramsden said the population had probably increased from that level in the face of early springs and mild winters over the past decade or so, before being hit by a string of extremes starting with the very cold winter of 2009-10.

Whether the barn owl could recover from the record lows seen in 2013 would depend on whether climate change would mean more extreme weather conditions, with cold winters affecting barn owls more than wet weather or drought, he said.

Land management also played a role, he said, adding that creating habitat for flagship species such as barn owls would also boost other wildlife such as birds and butterflies.

This article was first published by the Guardian.


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Hesperus Enfield

I saw an owl on display at a local sporting goods store last month. They really are incredible up close.

Iain Gibson

I don't think releasing rodents would be a realistic solution. A core population of rodents already exists; the problem may be due to a widespread decline in field vole populations throughout the UK, affecting the principal species which drives Barn Owl breeding success. This crash has so far been barely recognised by scientists and conservation bodies, but it appears to be affecting Kestrels, Short-eared Owls and other raptors which rely significantly on regular field vole peaks for sustaining populations. This is not to deny that prolonged snow cover in recent winters has also played a significant part in reducing owl… Read more »

Susan Frudd

We saw barn owls often in the day over the dykes searching for food. sadly now we do not see them at all. Let's hope there will be help for them to increase their numbers.

Mark McCandlish

I recall hearing of similar problems in Germany as a child in the 1960's. When the Winter season was especially cold with heavy snow followed by a Spring with melt-off and the flooding of many rodent burrows, the reduced rodent population affected local Owl populations. Creating habitat- yes! "Barn" Owls, get it? That would help, but why not have a captive breeding program or even a program of releasing rodents into the environment for the Owls to survive on?

Steven Biggio
Steven Biggio

They are getting very rare, I have had the privalage of seeing them close up when my city was a town, now they are gone.

Richard Prime

Such a shame; a very fragile species affected more than most by extreme weather?