Uncertain future for Barn Owls as numbers plummet

BARN Owls have suffered their worst breeding season for 30 years, according to a startling new report.

The iconic bird of prey has become a victim of the extreme recent British weather which has wreaked havoc on their habitat.

The Barn Owl Trust report reveals how just a few monitored nest sites across the country have been used so far this year.

Numbers were already low due to the bitterly cold winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11 and the extremely wet English summers of 2010 and 2011.

This year’s round of 73 Annual Monitoring Site visits revealed the extent of the devastation. On average nesting occurs at 51 per cent of sites, this year’s figure is a mere 12 per cent. A total of 47 per cent of sites were unoccupied. In the late 1990s numbers dwindled to 4,000 pairs across the UK.

East Sussex monitors discovered just one site out of six was successful in Arlington and two out of eight in Pevensey marshes.

At the occupied sites where pairs have managed to survive and breed, the average number of young in the nest was just two rather than the four or five that are needed for population recovery.

At a time when Barn Owls should have been thinking of breeding the British Trust for Ornithology recorded a 280 per cent increase in reports of dead birds, many of which had starved. A century ago it was a common farmland bird. But it is now far more scarce than it was in the 1980s when it was estimated to have declined by 70 per cent since 1932.

Hailsham-based Jenny McCutchan, who monitors for the Trust, in East Sussex, said: “It has been a really poor spring. The number of Voles has been very low and that is their main food source. They can’t really hunt in bad weather and that has had a major impact on their breeding.

“They are having a bad time but that’s nature way. Hopefully they will come round again and be successful.”

Trust spokesman David Ramsden said: “Barn Owl mortality usually peaks in February and then things improve. But in March this year mortality just kept increasing and by the end of the month huge numbers were dead. In 2012 our hopes were high. “Fantastic weather in March 2012 meant that the owls started breeding earlier and by late May we were finding nests with as many as seven well-grown owlets. But then in June it all went horribly wrong. The rain started and didn’t stop. This prevented the adults hunting and many young birds starved. In some cases, we found entire broods of owlets dead in the nest.”