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Entry Level Stewardship for Barn Owls
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The main cause of Barn Owl decline and the biggest factor limiting population recovery is lack of food (mainly field voles, wood mice, and common shrews). The solution is for farmers and landowners to create areas of perfect habitat and the Entry Level Stewardship scheme (which is open to all farmers in England) can provide financial assistance. Other schemes are available elsewhere in the UK. Ideal Barn Owl habitat consists of rough, tussocky grassland with a deep litter layer as this is where field voles (the Barn Owl's main prey) are most numerous. Grassland that lacks a deep litter layer is of much less benefit to Barn Owls - even if the grass is long.
Farmers who wish to join the Entry Level Stewardship scheme are given a ‘points target' (normally 30 points per hectare) and then have to choose from a list of about fifty management options (e.g. the creation of ‘buffer strips') for their land. Applicants who enter into a five-year agreement and meet their points target receive £30 per ha per year.
There are ELS options available that are of no benefit to Barn Owls and other options that have the potential to benefit Barn Owls but will not necessarily do so. If you want to benefit Barn Owls you need to include options that help you to create really rough, thick, tussocky grass with a deep litter-layer. Before deciding to encourage Barn Owls make sure the land is at least 1km from the nearest motorway, dual carriageway, or similar road. You can check the suitability of your landscape by checking our online maps (follow the link >).
Buffer Strips (options EE1/2/3 and EE7/8)
‘Buffer strips' are simply strips of grassland along field margins and can be very beneficial to Barn Owls by providing valuable hunting areas in grazed or cultivated land. HOWEVER, in order to be of great benefit to Barn Owls they have to be managed to achieve the optimum sward structure; see the slideshow ‘Pictures of grassland litter layers' and other links >.
Under the scheme, points can be gained by leaving 2, 4 or 6 metre wide buffer strips. These can be on cultivated land or around field ponds. For buffer strips either 300 or 400 points are available, depending on the width of the strips. Around ponds the maximum patch size is 0.5 hectares and it must extend at least 10m from the edge of and around each pond. Patches may be linked where there is more than one pond present in a field. To maximise the benefit to Barn Owls please choose 6-metre wide strips wherever possible.
There are management constraints put on these areas which include initial establishment of the strip, cutting regimes, use of the strips for access or storage, grazing and the use of fertilisers and herbicides. A grassy strip must be established or maintained within the first 12 months of the agreement. This would ideally be through natural regeneration, but a seed bed can be prepared if necessary.
Fertiliser and manure must not be used on these areas, and herbicides may only be used for spot treatment or weed wiping to control injurious weeds or invasive alien species.
The cutting regime states that although regular cutting may be needed within the first 12 months to remove weeds and encourage tillering of grasses, the strips may only be cut to prevent woody growth after this period and no more regularly than one year in five.
Buffer Strips on intensive grassland (options EE4/5/6) Because these strips can be grazed they will not tend to develop the sward structure required for field voles. Farmers wishing to encourage Barn Owls using these options will need to strictly limit grazing of the strips so as to allow the establishment and maintenance of a deep litter-layer.
Field Corners (options EF1, EK1, and EL1)
Field corners can provide good Barn Owl habitat in the same way as buffer strips. Awkward or unproductive corners of fields can be transformed into patches of rough, tussocky grass with a deep litter layer. Patches must be no more than 1 hectare (ha) per 20ha of arable land and no more than three 0.5ha patches per 10ha for lowland grassland. This ensures that patches are well distributed across the land available. There are 400 points available per ha for field corners (100 points for EL1-LFA land). Additional conditions for this option are that the area must not be grazed and the proposed areas cannot be situated on archaeological sites.
Beetle Banks on Arable Land (EF7)
Beetle banks are another option for providing good Barn Owl foraging habitat as they are characterized by tussocky grass and extensive management. Banks are a minimum of 2m wide and 580 points are available per ha. Management prescriptions include no application of pesticides, fertiliser and manure. This increases food availability for insectivores such as shrews, which in turn are prey items for Barn Owl.
Ditch Management (options EB6 and EB7)
24 points per 100 metres points can be gained for cutting ditch banks every 2 years rather than annually. Topping ditch banks at a height of at least 13cm (5") rather than mowing will also help to enhance their value as small mammal habitat.
Enclosed rough grazing (EL5), Moorland and rough grazing (EL6) Areas of rough grazing are generally unsuitable for field voles (see 'Pictures of rough grazing (not the best habitat)' >). They are, however, much better than areas of short grass with no litter-layer.
Maintenance of Weatherproof Traditional Farm Buildings (ED1) and Barn Owl Nestboxes
Under Entry Level Stewardship and Organic Entry Level Stewardship, points can also be gained at a rate of 2 per square metre of floor space for the maintenance of traditional farm buildings. This can be beneficial to Barn Owls but please note that only 48% of traditional buildings have a suitable nesting place. Points gained for building maintenance should be coupled with the erection of Barn Owl nestboxes in suitable buildings.
Nestboxes in buildings are generally better than nestboxes in trees but not every farm building is suitable for Barn Owls to roost and nest in - even if nestboxes are erected. The success of your nestbox will depend to a large extent on where you put it, how you position it, and whether or not it's well designed. Please go to the page ‘Getting the best Barn Owl nestbox for your site' by following the link in the right-hand margin.
Full details of the scheme and the attached conditions for each option can be found in the Entry Level Stewardship Handbook, which can be downloaded via the link in the right-hand margin or obtained from Natural England Customer Service Units.
There's more information on this topic in the Barn Owl Conservation Handbook