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Barn Owl habitat requirements in arable landscapes
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Arable landscapes are areas where more than 50% of the farmed land is arable or horticultural. Arable landscapes are predominately found on the eastern side of Britain. If you live in an area with more than 50% of the farmed land dominated by grassland click on the pastoral link opposite. If the land has both arable and pastoral farming then click on the mixed link opposite.
Barn Owls can reach very high densities within arable landscapes. However, research has shown that Barn Owls only hunt infrequently within arable or horticultural crops. The owls' probably avoid such habitats while hunting because the crops do not directly provide suitable conditions for their favoured prey item, the field vole. However, arable landscapes often indirectly provide vole-rich habitats in the form of grassy margins along the edges of fields, woods and ditches. Grassy margins in arable landscapes may also support populations of wood mice that Barn Owls often eat. It is along such grassy margins that Barn Owls have been widely observed to focus their foraging efforts. Occasionally, Barn Owls will hunt over the arable crops themselves but only at a certain time of year. For example, there may be significant populations of wood mice in cereals or sugar beet in the few weeks prior to harvesting and after harvesting they may be easy to catch for a few nights, but for most of the year small mammals are restricted to the field margins or boundary features. If you want to see Barn Owls in your area, try going out an hour before dusk and carefully look along the tops of fence-posts found next to grassy field margins.
Characteristics of suitable rough grassland
Grassy field margins for Barn Owls need to be rough grassland and should have a sward (grass) height of at least 20 cm. To achieve this they should only be topped infrequently - every second or third year is ample (one year in five in the case of Stewardship agreements). It is very important to allow the build-up of a good litter-layer (at least 7cm deep) at the base of the sward as this provides the cover field voles need. If you are sowing new grassy margins, try using a mix of tall grass species (e.g. Cock's foot, Dactylis glomerata, Timothy, Phleum pratense and Tufted hairgrass, Deschampsia caespitosa) and softer, more recumbent species (e.g. Agrostis spp., Festuca spp. and Holcus spp.). For advice on creating and managing grasslands for Barn Owls - including litter-layer pictures - follow the links opposite>
There's more information on foraging habitat - creation and management in the Barn Owl Conservation Handbook
How much habitat do Barn Owls need in arable landscapes?
Research funded by BOT has produced the best estimates of the quantity of rough grass habitat required by British Barn Owls in different landscape types. In arable landscapes, we estimate that Barn Owls require about 35 km of rough grass field margin within 2 km of a suitable nest site. Research has also shown that field voles require the margins to be greater than 4 metres wide, and ideally around 6 metres wide. Barn Owls also hunt more efficiently along wide margins. We therefore estimate that Barn Owls in arable landscapes require between 14 and 21 ha of rough grassland within 2 km of a nest site. However, to support a viable breeding population of Barn Owls over a wider area, land beyond 2 km radius also needs to be suitable. We estimate that in an arable landscape between 1.1 and 1.7% of the total land area needs to be rough grassland. Perhaps by working with your neighbours you can make Barn Owls a common sight in your area?
Note: the Barn Owl habitat requirements and grant schemes referred to in this page are only applicable to the UK. The situation is different in mainland Europe and other areas.