Gallery: Delight at soaraway success of Suffolk’s barn owls this year with more than 1,000 chicks born

Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project manager Steve Piotrowski returns barn owl chciks to their next bo

Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project manager Steve Piotrowski returns barn owl chciks to their next box after they were fitted with lightweight leg rings to monitor their movements - Credit: Archant

Barn owl conservationists are celebrating a bumper year for the species – and have been astonished by one bird’s “quite remarkable” long-distance “flight of fancy” out of Suffolk.

Barn Owl in Wingfield

Barn Owl in Wingfield

Following a disastrous year for the birds in 2013, nest boxes provided in the Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project have been “bursting at the seams with chicks” this year, project officers report.

And one particular female’s wanderings have surprised the officers as she travelled more than 20 times the distance barn owls usually cover in their dispersal from their place of birth.

Project manager Steve Piotrowski said that in spring last year barn owls struggled to cope with a relentless icy blast that decimated the number of short-tailed voles, their preferred prey, and many birds starved to death.

“Mortality was extremely high and reports of dead barn owls were reaching the British Trust for Ornithology at Thetford at the rate of up to 19 per day,” he said.

“These figures involved only ringed birds, so we were seeing just the tip of the iceberg with a significant proportion of the UK’s population perishing.

Since 2006, the project had been responsible for monitoring specially-designed nest boxes and by this year the number installed had reached 1,700

Most Read

“The 2013 severe weather resulted in only 261 boxes being occupied by barn owls and only 66 producing any chicks at all,” said Mr Piotrowski.

“Most female barn owls failed to gain the sufficient weight of 340 grammes to be in good enough condition to breed, so decided to skip a year. However, from one of these boxes came a remarkable 136km movement from Lea Farm, Great Ashfield, near Stowmarket.”

Project area co-ordinator and local farmer Patrick Barker ringed a brood of two chicks at Lea Farm on August 7 last year 2013 and one, a female, was found incubating a clutch of eggs in a box provided by the Vale Barn Owls Project in Muston, north Leicestershire, this summer.

“She raised three chicks in her newly adopted county after her flight of fancy from where she was hatched,” said Mr Piotrowski.

“In early autumn barn owl chicks are forced out from the nest where they were hatched and they have to find partners and then set up territories of their own. However, they tend not to move far, normally no further than six kilometres and often following the course of a river valley, so this movement is quite remarkable.

“Along with Suffolk, north Leicestershire and south Nottinghamshire are barn owl hotspots, so it’s conceivable that our Suffolk barn owl wandered off in a north-westerly direction until she found good feeding habitat vacated by barn owls that had succumbed to the severe weather.

“Nature is remarkable in that it often stages dramatic recoveries and this year our barn owls have demonstrated their resilience to the extremes of our weather,” Mr Piotrowski said.

“Provisional figures for 2014 show that all records have been broken with 516 boxes being occupied by barn owls. Of these 454 were found with eggs and 415 went on to produce chicks.

“This total exceeds the county record totals of 350 breeding pairs recorded in 1938 and 444 occupied boxes in 2012. The number of chicks in each brood was also at the highest since the project began with broods of seven being noted in many parishes.

“In total, 862 chicks were ringed from over 1,000 that were reared and, in addition, of the 56 adult barn owls handled, 34 were already carrying rings.”

To sustain good barn owl numbers there must be enough prey, he said. Short-tailed voles needed rough, tussocky grass through which they could move in tunnels. Such grassland provided voles with their own food source and nesting habitat and, when near correctly positioned barn owl nest boxes, it provided the ideal conditions for the owls to hunt.

“Currently, much of the county’s grassland is ‘managed’ by too much grazing or frequent cutting,” said Mr Piotrowski.

“The project is committed to offering advice to provide the grassland that barn owls favour across the county – with the benefits extending well beyond barn owls and voles. This habitat is scarce and precious, it holds up entire ecosystems, from diverse flora to many species of invertebrates that use it for overwintering.”

Lea Farm was farmed by J Miles and Sons and offered a “good example of careful grassland management”.

Farm worker Paul Batchelor was especially commitment to conservation and had created feeding and nesting opportunities for barn owls, Mr Piotrowski added.

The Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project is helping the popular species to thrive – and helping countless numbers of people across the county connect with nature.

Its principal partners are Suffolk Wildlife Trust, the Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group and the Thetford-based British Trust for Ornithology, but a number of smaller independent projects also fall under its umbrella, including those administered by the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Stour Valley Project, the Thornham Owl Project and the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary.

The project has advised on the fixing of 1,700 barn owl nest boxes across Suffolk.

Project manager Steve Piotrowski said: “By providing a connected network of good habitat and nesting opportunities we can give the barn owls the fighting chance they need to thrive. The project involves whole communities - the boxes are made by local organisations and monitored by an army of expert volunteers each year. The results are collated by the project recorder Alec Hillier, who meticulously records and analyses the data for each box and provides an annual report. This system of raising awareness, creating nesting opportunities and managing suitable nearby habitat is having a positive effect on barn owl populations across Suffolk. This is a project that all Suffolk people can be truly proud of.”

Next year the project will be 10 years old and there are plans to celebrate its success with a series of events. They will include a lecture tour by Mr Piotrowski, which will start at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay, on January 21, with a talk for Waveney River Trust and end at the Rutland Water Bird Fair on August 21. There will be an all-day workshop for barn owl enthusiasts at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Lackford Lakes nature reserve on July 11, and celebrations will culminate in a fundraising party at The Cut, Halesworth, which will include a lecture by Dr Colin Shawyer, UK’s leading authority on barn owl conservation.

With some project nest boxes showing signs of wear, Waveney Bird Club has set up a fund to help pay for repairs and replacement.

People can donate to the fund by sending cheques, payable to Waveney Bird Club, to: Steve Piotrowski, 96 Beccles Road, Bungay, Suffolk, NR35 1JA.