Barn owls must be Britain’s favourite bird of prey. These beautiful hunters are often described as ‘threatened’ or ‘declining’, but in reality they are far more common than most people imagine – particularly around Glebe House where there is a nest within 100 yards of the front door. That said, you have to be observant to spot them. Despite being a comparatively large, white, bird which hunts in the half light of dawn and dusk, they are remarkably discreet.
Thus this silent hunter can be remarkably difficult to spot – so much so that ornithologists monitor populations by listening for its distinctive calls rather than trying to spot it hunting. Despite this, now is the best time to find your local pairs – but forget about looking, the real giveaway is the sound. From an incredibly early age the young (hatching any day now) make a range of extraordinary sneezing, wheezing and snoring calls, which are far easier to detect than ghostly forms of the hunting adults. If you are staying at Glebe House between February and October, it is well worth wandering around quietly at dusk or dawn to listen intently for strange farting calls. If you are lucky you may also see the young owlets which are particularly obvious for a fortnight or so after leaving the nest – generally perched on rooftops and calling for food from their hard-working parents.
Until recently barn owls seemed to be in an inexorable decline. During the ‘30s there were around 12,000 pairs, but the loss of rough pasture and nest sites, coupled with pesticides and increased motor traffic were the main problems. Roadside verges might appear to be a prime hunting territory, but unlike ‘up and down’ kestrels, their hunting technique of quartering back and forth is disastrous. Engine noise is a secondary problem for this vocal species which communicates with low frequency grunts. Matters were not helped by the fact that the owls are at the limit of their range in Britain and a series of bad winters in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s hit them hard. As a result by the turn of the century their numbers were down to an estimated 3,800 pairs. Now the slide appears to have been halted, with a small increase recorded for the first time. The latest estimates put the population at over 4,000 pairs and the number appears still to be rising slowly.
One of the main causes of the switch in fortunes are the growing number of nest boxes being put up to replace the dwindling numbers of farm buildings and hollow trees. Both are in increasingly short supply as ancient barns are converted to homes, while first Dutch elm disease and then insurance fears led to many ancient trees being felled. The owls around Glebe are fortunate because of the large number of abandoned buildings dotted around the area. The disused farm behind the house would appear the prime ‘des res’ for pair, but in fact they prefer the prefabricated airbase sheds on the other side of the road.
The land around Glebe is also prime territory for barn owls. These are farmland hunters, preferring tussocky pastures divided by ancient hedgerows. This is now missing from much of lowland Britain, but there’s plenty in the immediate surrounds of Talbenny and the proximity of the sea means the area is generally frost and snow free – which is ideal if you hunt small mammals.
And there are good grounds for optimism on a national level. One welcome, but unexpected, side effect of providing extra boxes has been to boost reproductive rates. Unlike most raptors, barn owls will readily lay a second or even third clutch when food supplies are good, but normally are stopped because of early clutch’s three-month period of dependency. This means there is usually no room for a second clutch, but with an alternative site, the female can start to incubate afresh while her mate finishes rearing the first brood on his own. As the birds lay four to six eggs each time, this can quickly lead to a dramatic increase in numbers, so if only we humans can provide the right conditions, barn owls look set for a dramatic recovery across the south east.