Essex farmer helping barn owl towards bright future
- Credit: Archant
A dedicated farmer has become a top barn owl recorder for Essex.
David Wilkin, of Little Clacton, farms 120 acres in partnership with his parents, growing barley and wheat. The family also keeps around 70 breeding sows and fatten the offspring for market.
In his spare time, he runs a project to encourage barn owls to breed in Essex and is assisted in monitoring boxes by local bird ringers Simon Cox and Leon Woodrow, who help check boxes and ring the adults and young found.
“We all hold Schedule One Disturbance Licences to enable us to check the boxes as barn owls are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. We also have landowners and local barn owl enthusiasts who keep an eye on boxes on their patch and let us know if they are seeing barn owls hunting nearby,” he explained.
“I helped to start up the Dedham Vale (AONB) & Stour Valley Barn Owl nest box project back in 2001, which runs along the Essex & Suffolk border. Along the River Stour, Neil Catchpole, the present project officer, has worked tirelessly over the last few years to put up more and more boxes, with a total of 120 boxes up at this present time and 2014 was the project’s best year, with 18 active nests monitored by Neil and over 70 chicks produced.”
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David’s group was involved in putting up boxes on some Essex Wildlife Trust Reserves back in 1999, funded by the Tendring Local Group, and in 2012, Essex Wildlife Trust started its own nest box project.
“The Clacton and St Osyth Bird Watching and Protection Society and the Great Bentley Conservation Group have also raised money and helped to erect boxes in the area,” he said.
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But David said that without the help of farmers and other landowners the project would not be where it is today.
“The barn owls of Essex hopefully have a brighter future,” he said.
The numbers are impressive. In 2012, in their part of Essex, the group monitored 31 nests with 76 young reared. In 2013, there were 23 nests, with 51 young reared and in 2014, there were 51 nests with 195 young reared.
In all, he and his fellow volunteers monitor more than 400 boxes, said David, who is a voluntary adviser for the Barn Owl Conservation Network and a ringer with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), based in Thetford.
“When we started in 1998, we were aware of two breeding pairs of barn owls in this part of Essex and as we put up more and more boxes each year in good areas of habitat, numbers began to increase,” he said.
“2013 was a disastrous year for the barn owls, both here and nationally, as we had a bad winter and early spring, and the number of nests and number of chicks reared were down by almost 50% from the previous year here in Essex.
“But in 2014 we had a reasonable start to the year and an excellent summer and autumn, which coincided with a brilliant short-tailed vole breeding year and barn owl chick numbers increased dramatically, with several barn owl nests rearing five and six youngsters, compared to one, two or three in 2013.”
It was a “fantastic recovery”, he said, but warned against complacency: “We can’t be complacent and must continue to do all that we can, to preserve this beautiful bird.”
Carl Barimore, nest record scheme organiser for the British Trust for Ornithology at Thetford, said: “He’s very much at the dedicated-BTO-volunteer end of the spectrum – he’s doing a lot more than agreeing to keep an eye on boxes that have been erected on his own land.”
David has more than 40 landowners involved within the project and monitors more than 120 nest boxes, which are positioned in areas of rough grassland habitat.
Barn owls’ favourite food item is the short-tailed vole, which lives and breeds in rough tussocky grass. It requires at least 50 acres of this type of habitat to breed successfully.
In 2014, David sent BTO records of 21 barn owl nesting attempts in Essex, and Simon Cox, who helps Essex Wildlife Trust’s barn owl conservation project, sent in 19 records.