Barn Owls at Hothfield Heathlands

Thursday 15th January 2015

Barn owl © Margaret HollandBarn owl © Margaret Holland

Barn owls are one of the most loved and recognizable birds of the countryside. They are found throughout the world, but are suffering population declines across their range. In the UK for example, the Barn owl has steadily declined in numbers over the last century due to habitat loss, herbicide and rodenticide poisoning. Their nocturnal nature makes it increasingly difficult to survey Barn owls and therefore a population size can be tricky to calculate. However, owl nest boxes can provide a reliable way to monitor the presence of barn owls on a site, whilst also providing a nice safe nesting area for barn owl pairs to raise their young.

Barn owls in Britain are most commonly associated with rough tussocky grassland with high densities of small mammals. Add a well-placed barn owl box and Hothfield Heathlands becomes an ideal spot for these birds to live.

Barn owls swallow their prey whole, and then spit out the hair and bones in the form of neat thumb sized pellets. These pellets build up quickly in the nest box, and cleaning every 2-3 years is required. Over the winter, Kent Wildlife Trust’s Ian Rickards and a few volunteers braved the task of spring cleaning the nest boxe (this is the best time of year to do this so as not to disturb breeding pairs and young). We removed 3 buckets full of material, but left a layer of old pellets in the bottom of the box. The parent owls will pull apart these old pellets to make the nest more comfortable.

Owl pellets are a mixture of fur, bone and other indigestible material that the Barn owls consume then regurgitates in a dry “pellet” form. At a close glance, the bones found within pellets can reveal a lot about the Barn owl’s dietary habits and requirements. Their main choice of prey is the field vole, however any small mammals are taken.

The number of prey items needed to sustain an adult breeding pairs is, in short, quite a lot. The Barn Owl Trust has estimated that through the course of a year, a pair will consume around 4,000 prey items therefore it is critical that their habitat supports a large number of small mammals.

Our work at Hothfield Heathlands has already shown to benefit small mammal species (harvest mice for one!)). The conservation grazing program on site has been key to this. The cattle in particular are extremely beneficial in the maintenance of rough grassland as they tend to graze in pockets, leaving some areas to grow long, whilst keeping the overall grass length high. The long grass and bramble patches create the perfect habitat to support abundant small mammal number through the provision of food and nest materials.

Now that the box clean is done, it is now down to us to carry on our habitat restoration successes to keep our small mammals. That in turn will ensure our barn owls continue to use the Hothfield nest box for many seasons to come!

To find out more about Kent’s barn owls, and how you can help protect them, contact Kent Wildlife Trust on 01622 662012.

Written by Hollie Weatherill

 

Tagged with: Species