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Dedham Vale/Stour Valley; Beauty spot enjoys record barn owl chick numbers

06:00 20 July 2014

Neil Catchpole, countryside office with the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project, with one of a clutch of three barn owl chicks ringed at the RSPB reserve at Cattawade photos in late June this year.

Neil Catchpole, countryside office with the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project, with one of a clutch of three barn owl chicks ringed at the RSPB reserve at Cattawade photos in late June this year.

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Barn owls have been breeding in record numbers in the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley following a disastrous year for them last year, according to a conservationist.

Neil Catchpole, countryside office with the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project, ringing a barn owl chickNeil Catchpole, countryside office with the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project, ringing a barn owl chick

Neil Catchpole, countryside officer for the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and the Stour Valley Project, says he has ringed 54 barn owl chicks so far this year and he has more barn owl boxes still to visit on land including farms across the area. In one case, he ringed a clutch of six chicks. Normally, two or three chicks are produced by one barn owl pair.

“This year we are getting clutches of fives which are quite common. In Nayland, I did ring a clutch of six which is remarkable. I have never ringed that many,” he said.

“They hatch in sequence. In an average year you can get two or three in a clutch.”

It follows the virtual collapse of the breeding season last year in the area after the harsh winter hit populations of its food source of voles, mice and shrews.

The barn owl project was started in the Dedham Vale by farmer David Wilkin, of Clacton, and Neil Catchpole’s predecessor, Peter Ennis, about seven or eight years ago.

“This year is a record year for barn owl nesting numbers. The results aren’t all in yet, but it looks pretty good from the point of view of East Anglia,” said Neil.

“In my particular project area, two years ago in the summer of 2012, we had a remarkably good year. I have got over 100 boxes within my prepared area and I’m a ringer as well and we had 44. It was a good year.”

But last year the breeding season was a failure, he said, after the bad winter and a difficult start to the spring took its toll.

“I knew of four clutches but I didn’t manage to ring any barn owls and across East Anglia it was very poor - at least a third down.”

He put the birds’ breeding success this year down to a mild winter.

“The barn owl’s survival depends on the population of small mammals almost exclusively,” he said.

“A pair of barn owls in the course of 12 months raise a brood of young, say of an average of two or three, consumes 10,000 small mammals.”

As a result of the ready food source, they were laying eggs from mid-March rather than from the more customary time of the first week of April, he said.

Barn owls are protected under the Countryside and Wildlife Act, which means that trained nest monitors and licensed ringers such as Neil require a Schedule One Disturbance Licence even to look inside a nest box.

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