Appeal for barn owl sightings as bird numbers plummet

The barn owl. Pic by Richard Bowler

The barn owl. Pic by Richard Bowler

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Ulster Wildlife has launched an appeal for sightings in Co Antrim of one Northern Ireland’s most threatened birds - the barn owl.

Last year, the barn owl suffered its worst breeding season in over 30 years due to a prolonged, cold spring, and now the charity fears that numbers in Northern Ireland may have plummeted.

The barn owl was once a common sight in our countryside, but now there are thought to be less than 30 breeding pairs left here. Extreme weather, loss of suitable feeding and nesting habitat, combined with the build up of toxins from consuming poisoned prey are the main reasons for the bird’s decline.

Through its ‘Be there for Barn Owls’ Project, supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, Ulster Wildlife is trying to give this iconic bird a fighting chance for survival, by working with farmers and landowners to ensure there is enough suitable habitat for barn owls to hunt and breed, as well space for it to nest. But first of all, the charity needs to know where the birds are located.

“We are urging everyone in Co Antrim to give our barns owls a helping hand by contacting us with sightings of this beautiful bird or signs of their presence, such as nest sites or pellets,” said Catherine Fegan, Ulster Wildlife’s Barn Owl Officer.

“The long days and warm summer evenings are a perfect time to watch-out for this almost ghost-like bird hunting over fields or to hear its distinctive eerie screech. Sightings at this time of year are particularly valuable as breeding barn owls will reduce their hunting range to rear their young, so a sighting may be a sign that a nest site is nearby.

“It is only with this knowledge that we can identify areas where increased conservation effort will help make a difference to the long-term survival of barn owls and ultimately, see numbers of barn owls rise again,” she said.

The barn owl is nocturnal and will hunt mainly at dawn and dusk, its favoured hunting habitat being rough, ungrazed grassland. It is silent in flight, but is often referred to as the ‘screech owl’ due to the ear-splitting sound it can emit. A barn owl usually appears completely white if viewed from underneath in flight, and has been sometimes been mistaken as a banshee in local folklore due to its ghostly appearance and ability to take people by surprise. Its efficiency in eating small mammals, such as mice and shrews, has earned it the nickname ‘the farmer’s friend.’

If you have seen a barn owl or have any information, contact Catherine Fegan at Ulster Wildlife on 028 4483 3977 or email barnowls@ulsterwildlife.org. All information will be treated sensitively and can be kept confidential on request.

To find out more about barn owls in Northern Ireland and Ulster Wildlife’s work to secure the future of this threatened bird, visit www.ulsterwildlife.org/barnowl