Major success for barn owl conservation in the UK

The Sunday Times is able to report on a major conservation success in the UK thanks to the efforts primarily of Colin Shawyer and what appears to be an army of volunteers supporting him.

The conservation success regards the barn owl and is largely thanks to Colin Shawyer’s passionate interest in this species of bird. His love of barn owls started when he was a teenager and exploring the Hertfordshire countryside.

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Mr Shawyer is now 74 years of age and he can look back on his life as one that was dedicated to protecting barn owls. The newspaper reports that “over the years he has put up 4,500 nest boxes.”

It is thanks to the many more nest boxes that barn owl breeding pair numbers have increased from 12,000 in the 1930s to 14,000 today.

Shawyerestimates that 75% of barn owl populations are in man-made nests today. He regards the increased stability in the barn owl population as a major conservation success story for Britain.

The conservation has “most definitely turned a corner” he says.

Shawyer in combination with the Barn Owl Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology believe that the barn owl population is in good health.

Although it is admitted that there are still challenges ahead with problems such as climate change.

In the 1980s, my newspaper tells me that the barn owl population plummeted for the following reasons:

  • Agricultural modernisation taking away natural habitat and prey.
  • Old barns being converted into houses.
  • Trees with hollows in them being felled because of health and safety concerns.
  • The use of organochlorine pesticides in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • The decline in their prey such as rats and mice.

Shawyer is a biochemist but it seems he dedicated his spare time to the conservation of barn owls. He has a book published in 1987 entitled, “The Barn Owl in the British Isles, It’s past, Present and Future”, with a forward by Sir David Attenborough.

At one time it was feared that barn owls would become extinct in the UK with only 4,000 pairs left.

Mr Shawyer founded the Barn Owl Conservation Network in 1988. His mission was to save the species and he achieved that by gathering together volunteers to place nest boxes in suitable buildings and obtaining the agreement and help of landowners and farmers.

Where the barn owl had disappeared in the past there are now thriving populations. Shawyer said that “in Hertfordshire we were down to 9 breeding pairs. Cheshire wasn’t a lot better. It was so low we were expecting extinction in both. Now they are up to the 200 mark. There have also been unbelievable numbers in North Yorkshire”.

An added benefit has been to persuade river authorities to allow long grass to grow to attract mice and voles, the prey animals of owls.

The current conservation status of barn owls are at green whereas they were at amber before. It’s taken a lot of effort Shawyer says. He added:

“I always said we’d never achieve the 12,000 recorded in the 1930s but we have. You couldn’t do any of this work without the support of farmers and landowners. They have to give you permission to put boxes up and I don’t think we ever been refused. It has always been the farmers’ bird, right back to the 1700s, when they used to put owl holes in their barns to come in and take rats and mice.”

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