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05/10/2007 Archived Entry: "Barn Owls"
The decline of numbers of barn owls continues to cause concern. This beautiful golden and white bird was once a common sight around the countryside where it was considered the farmers' friend due to its destruction of farmyard pests such as mice and rats. It also feeds on shrews and voles, most of its food supply being found in the rough grassland of the countryside.
It hunts during the hours of darkness and, with its pure white underparts, and silent wings, its sudden and appearance in car headlights or glow from a building can be startling. Not surprisingly, this delightful owl has given rise to ghost stories, especially as some of its favourite haunts are around old castles, abbeys, churches and other ruined buildings. It can also produce a blood-curdling shriek in flight that adds to its spectral reputation.
Conservationists of every kind don't want this bird to vanish from our landscape but its decline has been serious and continuous. During the last seventy-five years, its numbers in the British Isles have dwindled by about two thirds, there now being only some 4000 pairs.
In spite of its usefulness to farmers, it is the changes in farming methods which have been largely responsible for this decline. As much of our rough grassland has disappeared with intensive grazing, so the barn owl's food supply has diminished. Another factor is the loss of another part of its habitat – barn owls, as their names suggests, like to live, roost and rear their young in barns, in old ruins. Today, many of those ruins are being sold for conversion into dwellings. In short, a number of factors are contributing to the gradual loss of this beautiful bird.
However, a group of enthusiastic volunteers are doing their utmost to help preserve the species. Following his studies at York University in the England, Dr Nick Askew has produced an ecological blueprint that details the ideal habitat for barn owls. In this he has been supported by the RSPB, the Barn Owl Trust, the Environment Agency, the Central Science Laboratory, Natural England and York University. Information is being distributed to farms and land managers in the hope they will preserve more rough land and buildings for the owls. Nest boxes are also being erected.
It is hoped these efforts will increase barn owl numbers, so it seems that barn owls have lots of friends other than our farming brethren.