Barn Owls In Wokingham Are On The Rise

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Barn owls are on the rise in Wokingham Borough after decades of decline, thanks to a long-running conservation scheme backed by the council.

In the 20 years since the Wokingham Borough Barn Owl Project was launched, the number of local breeding pairs is estimated to have increased about four times to between 20 and 25 – with 280 chicks fledged over the same period, an average of 14 a year.

Barn owls in Wokingham - Stuart Croft
Picture Courtesy Of Stuart Croft

This is a great sign for the wider environment as barn owls are considered a “key indicator” species, meaning their health reflects similar patterns in many other animals, plants and fungi locally. It also shows the borough is playing its part in an ongoing increase in the species nationally.

The project, run in partnership with the Barn Owl Conservation Network, Blackwater Valley Countryside Partnership (BVCP) and others, has successfully aimed to grow the species’ population locally by setting up nest boxes and keeping an eye on numbers over time.

Swooping in to reverse a long-standing decline

Between the 1930s and the 1980s, Berkshire’s barn owl population fell by 70 per cent to 38 breeding pairs. By 1997 there were 20 at most, and possibly even as few as five, prompting concern among experts over their conservation status.

This was due to threats like intensification of farming, severe winters, increasing traffic levels and the break-up of natural habitats through the removal of old hedgerow trees and barn conversions.

The Wokingham Borough Barn Owl Project was launched with support from the Wildlife Conservation Partnership and the Barn Owl Conservation Network, as well as bodies like the Environment Agency.

It also benefited from the input of biologist and ecologist Colin Shawyer, a national expert on owls and raptors, the council’s wildlife officers and lead local surveyor Stuart Croft.

Several dozen boxes have been set up in various locations, including the tops of poles and in trees, in places where there are opportunities for barn owls to hunt small mammals. As a protected species, these are surveyed annually by specially licensed staff with volunteers who look for signs of occupation like feathers, “pellets” of undigested bones from prey or “white wash” – a type of droppings.

A happy home for our feathered friends

The survey data is fed back to the British Trust for Ornithology, which helps to conserve the species on a national level, and the volunteers also clear the empty boxes of debris so they can be used in future.

Over 20 years, they’ve found the owls take readily to the boxes and that breeding fluctuates in three- to four-year cycles, following similar patterns in the local vole population which are a main food source.

Barn owls and kestrels will happily share pole-mounted boxes, with kestrels preferring the upper “attic” section. Barn owls have also been seen at natural nesting sites at Arborfield, Shinfield, Hurst and the Emmbrook area of Wokingham town.

The local increase follows a national trend which has seen the country’s breeding pairs double to about 9,000 since the mid-1990s. Because of this, barn owls were removed from the British Trust for Ornithology’s “amber” list of species of conservation concern in 2015.

Working patiently for a hoot-iful result

Cllr Ian Shenton, executive member for environment, sport and leisure, said: “We take our commitments to local biodiversity seriously and are proud of these results, which are the result of sustained and tireless efforts by our own teams and our many partners over the years.

“We’d like to thank everyone who played their part, however small, in making this a success and we assure residents that we’ll continue to do so as we look to the future and the many challenges that this borough faces.

“We’ve got to work with many pressures and demands, including the requirement to build new housing – but we’ll never overlook the value of the natural world, nor the vital role it plays in addressing the climate emergency and our promise to do all we can to make a difference in this area.

“Anyone can help make the borough more friendly to wildlife, even if it’s as simple as taking rubbish or recycling home after a walk, and we encourage all residents to play their part.”

Taking a great project to the “nest” level

The council would also like to thank Wokingham Town Council, Hurst Parish Council, Berkshire Ornithological Club, CEMEX and the local landowners who have all supported this project.

Looking forward, the scheme will seek to replace any worn-out nest boxes, many of which have long outlived their expected 15-year lifespan.

Residents can support barn owls by keeping dead trees that have hollows, as long as it’s safe to do so, and avoiding the use of slug pellets or other garden poisons which can work their way up the food chain.

They can put up nest boxes although this comes with obligations, including a requirement not to disturb the box once occupied. More advice is available from the Barn Owl Trust at www.barnowltrust.org.uk or from the council at ecology@wokingham.gov.uk.