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Barn Owl Trust projects

Indoor Barn Owl Nestbox Erection 16
  • Practical conservation work
  • Barn Owl population monitoring.
  • Collating UK population monitoring data
  • Barn Owl Conservation Handbook
  • The Lennon Legacy Project
  • Major Road Research Project
  • Barn Conversion Research Project
  • Identifying priority areas for Barn Owl conservation in Britain
  • Altitudinal Distribution Research Project
  • District Barn Owl Schemes
  • Radio tracking
  • Survival of released captive-bred Barn Owls

Practical conservation work

Every year, from October to February, Barn Owl Trust staff and volunteers are out and about erecting nestboxes. In fact, since 1988 we’ve put up well over 1,500. Every opportunity is taken to advise site owners on creating foraging habitat (to boost the owls’ food supply) and safer rodent control (in an effort to reduce poisoning). We cover Devon and most of Cornwall. In other parts of the UK we liaise with a wide range of independent Barn Owl workers, volunteer Barn Owl Groups, and various county-wide projects.

Barn Owl population monitoring

In our own study area we’ve been checking around 80 sites every year since 1990 and accumulated over 22,000 Barn Owl records. Data is also gathered through the use of BTO rings and subsequent ring recoveries reported by the public. This information underpins our research projects and evidence-based conservation work. 

Barow brood nest loc95 jam factory [david ramsden] 150611 (b)

Collating UK population monitoring data

Across the UK, at least 7,000 potential nest sites are visited every year by a wide range of independent people, groups and projects. As a result around 2,500 broods of young Barn Owls are recorded annually. In 2013 we launched the UK Online Barn Owl Survey and in 2014, for the first time, we collated data kindly provided by 26 independent monitoring groups and published the ‘State of the UK Barn Owl population 2013‘. See the latest UK population figures.

State Of The UK Barn Owl Population 2013

Barn Owl Conservation Handbook

“Packed with well-researched information and drawing on over two decades of first-hand experience, the Barn Owl Trust’s book looks set to become the definitive reference for those with an interest in Barn Owls, their ecology and conservation. Like the Trust, this book is upbeat and practical, delivering an optimistic approach to Barn Owl conservation that is accessible to readers from a wealth of backgrounds.” Mike Toms, British Trust for Ornithology. Coordinator of the last national Barn Owl survey: Project Barn Owl. Publication of the Handbook was a huge milestone for the Barn Owl Trust – it took us over two years to write! The Barn Owl Conservation Handbook is now considered essential reading for ecologists, planners, land managers and ornithologists. Get your copy from our online shop. 

Projects barn owl conservation handbook

The Lennon Legacy Project

In April 2001, out of the blue, we received an amazing legacy from Mrs. Vivien Lennon. By chance, a few weeks later, we found out that the only field next to our base on the edge of Dartmoor was to be sold. In October 2001, using most of the money we’d received from Vivien’s estate, the Barn Owl Trust became a landowner for the first time and set up the Lennon Legacy Project; ‘Transforming 26 acres of intensively grazed sheep pasture into 26 acres of Barn Owl Heaven’. Our aim was not only to create perfect Barn Owl habitat but to encourage as much other wildlife as possible. The resulting biodiversity gains have exceeded all expectations. The land’s transformation continues to inspire those who attend a guided walk or hear about it in a presentation. Read the full Lennon Legacy Project story or see what’s been recorded recently on-site in our Wildlife Diary.

Lennon Legacy Project Llp Aerial Flowers

Photoguides for creating Barn Owl and wildlife habitats, and some of the flora and fauna found here: 

Major Road Research Project

Until 2003, many people thought that the high numbers of young Barn Owls dying on trunk roads each autumn was unimportant because so many die at that time of year (i.e if they’d not been killed on the road they would probably have died anyway). We questioned this view, researched the circumstances surrounding Barn Owl road deaths using data we had been collecting for 15 years, and proved that main roads mainly kill those that should have survived. Indeed, it was our report ‘Barn Owls and Major Roads’ that first established the true importance of road deaths, and offered the solution!

Barn Owl Road Kill Dead Sandy Osborough

Barn Conversion Research Project

The conversion of old barns to dwellings was commonplace in the late 20th century (and still is in many areas) but its effect on resident Barn Owls was unknown. In consultation with Dr. Paul Chanin of Exeter University, we designed a 4-year research project to investigate:

  • The effect of site loss on local Barn Owl distribution and status.
  • The usefulness of incorporating provision for Barn Owls into conversions.
  • Overall site availability.
  • Rate of site loss due to conversions, decay and demolition.
Barow flying food prov entrance [christopher d forrest] 270717 (a)

Twenty sites were selected across Devon and into Cornwall as part of the project and each required an extensive search within a 1.5 km radius for Barn Owl roost and nest sites. This involved surveying every structure, tree cavity or natural crevice with an access hole greater than 70 mm x 70 mm and subsequently determining signs of occupation. This search resulted in an incredible 904 buildings and 26 hollow trees being systematically surveyed every 4 months for the duration of the study. As it was known that the loss of prey-rich habitat can reduce breeding productivity and increase mortality, and that the use of rodenticides can also increase mortality in Barn Owls, these variables were also considered as part of the 1.5 km radius search. However, the study found no strong relationship between these variables and changes in owl activity. The research culminated in a scientific paper titled the ‘Effect of barn conversions on local populations of Barn Owl Tyto alba’ being published by David Ramsden in Bird Study (the Journal of The British Trust for Ornithology) in 1998. A key finding of this research was that losing a nest place can have a negative knock-on effect at nearby alternatives. This was evident at several occupied sites that owls abandoned, even though numerous suitable options were close to where the nest place had been in the developed barn. However, where provision for Barn Owls was incorporated into conversions, the birds generally stayed. These findings supported the best practice advice found within the ‘Barn Owls on Site – a guide for developers and planners’ we produced in 1995, part-funded by English Nature (now part of Natural England). This was the first guidance to be sent to every Local Authority Planning Department in Britain. This has subsequently been followed up with an updated document – Barn Owls and Rural Planning Applications – a guide 2015

Barn Owl roosting and nesting places

Identifying priority areas for Barn Owl conservation in Britain

One of the difficulties faced by Barn Owl workers until 2006 was the lack of information on the species’ habitat requirements. Although rough grassland was well known as the species’ optimum foraging habitat, the simple question “How much do they need?” could not be adequately answered. The answers were provided in a collaborative research project with the Environment Agency, English Nature, Central Science Laboratory and the University of York carried out by Nick Askew PhD., principally funded by the Barn Owl Trust. As a result of this ground-breaking research you can now find out if your area is suitable for Barn Owls, and read about the amount of rough grassland needed by Barn Owls in different landscape types. Find out how we identified priority areas for Barn Owl conservation in Britain.

Projects Identifying Priority Areas Habitat

Altitudinal Distribution Research Project

It was a common thought that Barn Owl nest sites were limited by altitude. However, in 2011 a Plymouth University student, Chris Batey, researched this further using a substantial data set provided to him by us. He suggested altitudinal distribution of Barn Owl sites wasn’t such a cut-and-dried issue and perhaps other limitations were in play, such as site availability. As well as proving a very valuable asset to our Conservation Team his research was well received by his university, and rightly so. Chris worked hard on the project, and his on-going liaison showed great commitment. Chris was very pleased with the final outcome, as we were for him. A short paper of his work was published in the August 2013 edition of British Birds (Volume 106). 

Projects Barn Owl Altitudinal Distribution Research

District Barn Owl Schemes

The thinking behind our District Barn Owl Schemes is that if you have extremely limited resources, the most effective way to use them is to physically go to a nest site and do everything possible to ensure continued occupation and improved nesting success. Thus, the schemes are based on compiling a list of all the known nest sites in a district and then implementing a package of measures at each site over a period of 2-3 years.

The measures at each site are:

  1. Gain the cooperation and support of the site owner and all those who manage land within 1km.
  2. Make the nest place as safe as possible, often by erecting a deep nestbox.
  3. Find a patch of rough grassland, tell the landowner what’s good about it, and advise on habitat improvements.
  4. Discuss secondary poisoning by rodenticides and advise on safer methods of rodent control.
  5. Prevent owls drowning by making safe all open water containers (e.g. cattle troughs) within 200 metres of the nest.
  6. Create a nearby permanent alternative nesting place as a back-up (e.g. erect a deep nestbox inside a building).

The first of five such schemes we carried out was the South Hams Barn Owl Scheme (1997-2000) and the most recent was the Westmoor Barn Owl Scheme (2009 – 2010). Each project was set up as a partnership between the local authority, ourselves, and the county Bird Watching and Preservation Society. The 2003 Devon Barn Owl Survey Report provides evidence that these schemes succeeded in boosting Barn Owl numbers.

Projects Barn Owl Altitudinal Distribution Research

Radio tracking

Radio tracking Barn Owls involves the use of a tiny transmitter that is attached to the owl in such a way that it has no effect on behaviour. The owl’s movements are then followed using hand-held receivers and the position of the owl is determined by triangulation.

Radio tracking helps answer questions such as:

  • How do Barn Owls use the typical farmed landscapes?
  • Do they hunt mostly along hedges?
  • Do they only hunt over grassland?
  • To what extent do they use arable land?
Projects Barn Owl Radio Tracking Research

We carried out our first radio tracking study in 1998/1999 in collaboration with Spanish university students. Unfortunately, we encountered major practical problems caused by equipment limitations and the effect of extremely hilly terrain and wet weather. However, we learned a huge amount about the practical problems of radio tracking. In 2008 we radio tagged 9 nestling Barn Owls in order to study their dispersal behaviour. Almost a year later we were still tracking one of them. In 2009 we tagged and tracked a further 3 nestlings and successfully followed their dispersal. In 2009 and 2010 we carried out a joint project with the Barn Owl Foundation (Hungary) and radio tagged breeding pairs in Hungary and England to determine home range sizes and compare temporal activity patterns in relation to weather. Our 2008 and 2009/10 projects were in collaboration with Ambios, a not-for-profit organisation that secures funding for voluntary trainee placements and the transference of skills across Europe. We are very grateful to Brian Cresswell at Lotek UK for all his assistance. Results from our radio tracking studies are featured in the Barn Owl Conservation Handbook and collaborators from the Barn Owl Trust, Ambios Ltd and Lotek UK developed further research in a scientific article that was published in the BTO journal, Bird Study. Key findings were: 1) roost sites used by female Barn Owls were more widely scattered than those used by males, suggesting more extensive ranging behaviour; 2) despite hatching in nestboxes, young birds usually roosted in trees until harsh weather pushed them to use nestboxes instead; 3) young owls dispersing across elevated landscapes settled on home ranges at markedly lower altitudes, and 4) there was no discernible relationship between roost site locations and major roads or rivers. The author’s manuscript is available at Ruiz et al (2022), Juvenile Barn Owl Tyto alba alba dispersal: roost site selection in relation to landscape features — a radio tracking study. The Version of Record of this manuscript is available in Bird Study (January 25th 2022): Take a look at our radio tagging and tracking gallery.

GPS tags for Barn Owls – Latest Developments

Survival of released captive-bred Barn Owls

Please be aware it is illegal to release captive-bred Barn Owls into the wild without a licence to do so. Barn Owl reintroduction involves the deliberate release of captive-bred birds into an area from which the wild population has been lost with the long-term aim of establishing self-sustaining wild birds. Our breeding and release project was one of the few such schemes that included extensive survey and monitoring work at every release site (both before and after), detailed record keeping, and the BTO-ringing of all birds prior to release. In 1989 we produced the first-ever report on the release of captive-bred Barn Owls in Britain comparing their survival with that of wild birds in the same region during the same years. This work resulted in us joining the Nature Conservancy Council Barn Owl Liaison Group, and later the Department of Environment (DoE) Barn Owl Working Group.  At the request of the DoE (UK government), we produced the first ‘Code of Practice for the release of captive-bred Barn Owls’. Our breeding and release project continued until 2001 when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) carried out a review to determine if the expenditure involved in administering their licensing system for all UK release schemes (estimated at £60,000 per annum) was a good use of public funds. For the purpose of this review we produced a second Barn Owl Trust Reintroduction Report detailing the release of 223 birds from 41 sites over a 6-year period. This showed that released birds can survive and that our own release project had made a positive contribution to Barn Owl conservation. However, DEFRA decided to dismantle the licensing scheme, which effectively stopped the release of captive-bred Barn Owls in Britain. Our Second Re-introduction Report is a unique source of further information on this topic. It contains a comprehensive literature review and highly detailed information on release methods for captive-bred Barn Owls, as well as figures on the survival rates and site fidelity of 223 released birds.

Supporting Barn Owl conservation has never been easier!

At The Barn Owl Trust, we offer a variety of ways for you to contribute to our important work. Whether you choose to make a regular donation, leave a legacy in your Will, adopt an owl in our sanctuary, or purchase something from our shop, your support makes a real difference. But it’s not just about money – there are other ways to help too! From encouraging Barn Owls in the wild to spreading awareness about their conservation, every action counts. Support us today and be a part of conserving the Barn Owl and its environment.

Way to support us