Community Barn Owl Project says barn owls not faring well in West Suffolk

Friday 14th August 2015

Barn Owl hunting at Fressingfield – July 2015 by Jon Evans

An interim report for 2015 from the Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project finds disappointing nest box occupancy in West Suffolk, but reports that populations are still holding on along the Suffolk coast

Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project -10th August 2015
By Project Director Steve Piotrowski

The ups and downs in the life of the barn owl

Barn owls live a topsy-turvy life and populations are subject to dramatic fluctuations, which are linked to the annual abundance in the short-tailed vole population, the barn owl’s favourite prey, which peaks and troughs every 3-4 years. For example, 2013 was a disastrous year for barn owls, but nest boxes were bursting at the seams with chicks the following year! In 2015 we have seen a relatively high number of adult pairs occupying the boxes, although brood sizes are small. This has come as a result of vole populations being extremely high in 2014, with some areas recording numbers close to “plague” proportions, but as could be predicted, vole populations subsequently crashed. The areas of high barn owl density seem to be the worst affected, where food supplies have been all but depleted for local barn owls. Early signs are that throughout much of England, 2015 has been a disastrous year for the barn owl with little or no breeding at all taking place in normally good barn owl counties such as Lincolnshire. However, Suffolk has again somewhat bucked the trend in Eastern England at least, with box occupancy, particularly on the coast and in the main river catchments, having been relatively good. The shortage of voles has meant that barn owls have to hunt harder and longer, so this summer many have been spotted quartering fields and meadows in daylight, which is not a common sight in Suffolk. Seeing barn owls hunting in the middle of the day during the late spring and summer months maybe a breath-taking experience for the observers, but it is often not good news for barn owls as it usually means that their food is in short supply!

An indication of how barn owls are faring is by the number of chicks ringed. Last year nearly 1,000 barn owls were ringed by the Group whereas indications for 2015 (see Table 2) show that the total is unlikely to exceed 400, roughly a 60% reduction. It should be noted that we await results of nearly half of the boxes that are monitored annually and we are aware of the presence of some broods. 

This year is unusual in that there is a double first-egg laying period, with many laying their first egg around the usual time of 20th April and then another batch laying in the second week of June. Boxes containing late broods are being monitored and it will be interesting to note whether these late broods will fare better.

What do barn owls need?
To sustain good barn owl numbers there must be enough prey. Short-tailed voles need a particular type of habitat - rough, tussocky grass with a deep litter layer or thatch at its base that they can move through in tunnels and that provides their own source of food and breeding habitat. This habitat, in close proximity to correctly positioned barn owl nest boxes, provides the ideal conditions for the owls to hunt. 

Barn owl with its favourite food - a short-tailed vole at Middleton - July 2015 photograph by Jon Evans

Currently, much of the county’s grassland is ‘managed’ by too much grazing or frequent cutting. The project is committed to offer 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.

Could it be that Suffolk barn owls are able to diversify more than those found elsewhere? When food is plentiful, barn owls will continue to take food to the nest and form larders. This is a form of caching food in times of plenty and allows the barn owl to brazen out hard times such as periods of rain when they would be unable to hunt. Early season larders were few and far between this year, but those that were found showed a good selection long-tailed field mouse, bank vole, common shrew, pygmy shrew and the far less common, water shrew.


The Project
The Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project (SCBOP) is dedicated to the conservation of barn owls. Its success has been much acclaimed and the project was very proud to receive Suffolk County Council’s Greenest County Award in the Landscape and Diversity category early this year. The project’s principal partners are Suffolk Ornithologists Group, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and BTO, but a number of smaller independent projects also fall under the SCBOP umbrella including those administered by Dedham AONB and Stour Valley Project, Thornham Owl Project and Suffolk Owl Sanctuary.

The project as a whole has advised on the fixing of over 1800 barn owl nest boxes throughout Suffolk, on nature reserves, farmland and on community spaces like village greens and school grounds. In addition, the success of the project has resulted in requests for the fixing of boxes just across the boundaries in Norfolk and Essex. By providing an extended connected network of good habitat and nesting opportunities, we can give the barn owls the fighting chance they need to thrive. The project involves the whole community and the boxes are made by local organisations and monitored by an army of expert volunteers each year. 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 of which all Suffolk people can call their own and we can be truly proud of our achievements.

In 2015, SCBOP is 10 years old and plans are already underway to celebrate its success by holding a series of special events. This includes a lecture tour and workshops led by Project Director, Steve Piotrowski that started at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay, on 21st January. Steve will deliver further lectures including one at Stowupland Village Hall on 23rd September and the lecture tour will culminate in a fundraising party at The Cut, Halesworth. Here, the audience are being treated to a special lecture by Colin Shawyer, founder and coordinator of the Barn Owl Conservation Network (BOCN) the UK’s leading authority on barn owl research and conservation and author of The Barn Owl, published by Arlequin Press in 1998. Tickets are available from The Cut or on Halesworth Arts Festival website:

The Future
Adding the word “Community” to our project name worked very well for us and we must thank all those involved for their support. This truly is a “Community” project with every Suffolk parish involved.

For the future, we are looking at sustainability, but not only for the boxes, some of which are already in need of replacing due to wear and tear, but also for people. Those who were in the project from the beginning are not so spritely now, so to survive the project needs new younger recruits. This will ensure that barn owls are enjoyed and cared for by our children and our children’s children for many generations to come. To meet this goal additional training sessions have been organised and applications for grants forwarded to appropriate funders. The next training course is programmed to take place at Heveningham Hall in February 2016 ready for monitoring work next season. Please make contact either by telephone or by email (see contact details below) if you wish to attend the training session. There is no charge.

Suffolk people are fortunate to have two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) running alongside each other. The Dedham Vale AONB stretches upstream from Manningtree to within one mile of Bures whereas the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB runs northwards from the Stour estuary in the south to Kessingland in the north. The characteristic lowland English river landscape of the Dedham Vale inspired the world-famous painters Constable and Gainsborough. The Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB features some of Suffolk’s most picturesque landscapes, a mixture of shingle beaches, crumbling cliffs, marshes, estuaries, heathland, forests and farmland that makes this AONB so special. Both AONBs embraces an abundance of wildlife and, where wildlife flourishes, there will always be Barn Owls.

As well as protecting our most cherished areas of countryside, the AONB’s are able to support projects such as SCBOP through their Sustainable Development Fund (SDF). We are grateful and delighted to announce that the project has been awarded £2,000 from each of the AONB SDF’s with an additional £1,000 from Touching the Tide Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Partnership Scheme. This money will allow us to repair or replace dilapidated boxes in the two AONB areas. In addition, a further £1,000 has been raised by Waveney Bird Club, so boxes in the Waveney Valley can also be repaired or replaced as and when necessary. Project monitors are currently out there assessing the state of boxes as part of box checking this summer. Work on box replacement should commence this autumn.

The project is grateful to all the people of Suffolk, south Norfolk, north Essex and elsewhere who have put their heart into saving the barn owl for generations to come.
As well as the funders already mentioned above, we must also thank other principal supporters such as Chadacre Agricultural Trust, who have supported the project from the very beginning, Suffolk Environmental Trust and SITA Trust. The input of local people should not be underestimated. There have been a number of barn owl parties, garden open days, evening lectures that have been specifically arranged to raise funds for the project. This funding has provided a significant contribution to the project, not only for the financial input but by getting people involved and allowing them to see barn owls and their chicks close up, a lifetime experience.

Since the birth of SCBOP, Colin Shawyer and his Barn Owl Conservation Network, which he founded in 1988, have been supportive and inspirational. Thanks are due to him for his guidance and for keeping us up-to-date with the national perspective.

Steve Piotrowski, Project Director, Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project – | 01986 893311

Photgraphs by Jon Evans - top photo shows a barn owl hunting at Fressingfield, Suffolk in July 2015.


Tagged with: Species, Barn Owl