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Barn owl project helps species thrive in Suffolk

PUBLISHED: 08:00 15 April 2018

A barn owl at rest on Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Carlton Marshes nature reserve. Picture: GAVIN DURRANT

A barn owl at rest on Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Carlton Marshes nature reserve. Picture: GAVIN DURRANT

Gavin Durrant 2017

The award-winning Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project, in which virtually every parish in the county has had involvement, is changing the way it works after rescuing the popular species from perilously low population levels.

A barn owl with prey on Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Carlton marshes nature reserve. Picture: GAVIN DURRANTA barn owl with prey on Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Carlton marshes nature reserve. Picture: GAVIN DURRANT

Over the project’s 13-year history Suffolk’s barn owls have increased in number to such an extent that the county is one of the species’ national strongholds.

After advising on the positioning of more than 2,000 custom-made barn owl nest boxes on farmland, nature reserves and community spaces across the county, project leaders say they have achieved their objectives and the scheme will enter a new phase of box repair and maintenance rather than installation.

Founder and director Steve Piotrowski said the availability of project nest boxes had led to a “dramatic, year-on-year population increase” from low levels that had previously hit a worrying estimate of only about 45 breeding pairs in the late 1980s. As more boxes were installed the population further increased and in the last six years an average of 450 boxes had been occupied.

Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project manager Steve Piotrowski returning barn owl chicks to their next box after they were fitted with lightweight leg rings to monitor their movements. Picture: KATHY PIOTROWSKISuffolk Community Barn Owl Project manager Steve Piotrowski returning barn owl chicks to their next box after they were fitted with lightweight leg rings to monitor their movements. Picture: KATHY PIOTROWSKI

The success of the project – marked by two Suffolk Creating the Greenest County environmental awards – had resulted in changes in its structure, he said.

“With so many boxes now being occupied by barn owls, there’s no urgent need to fix further boxes and the project has reached the maintenance stage. The project has undoubtedly met its aims and objectives for a sustainable barn owl population and, from this year, the project will be managed by six area managers, supported by a number of co-ordinators for each area. Each management area will be autonomous, so it’s time for me to retire from the project.”

He added: “The enthusiasm of landowners, farmers and the general public was apparent from the very start and the success of the project has gone well beyond my wildest dreams.”

Steve Piotrowski with two barn owl chicks. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNSteve Piotrowski with two barn owl chicks. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

The changes come after an “exceptional” barn owl year in 2017. Data just released shows project volunteers monitored 78% of the scheme’s 1,774 boxes and found barn owls in 469 of them – just short of 2016’s record of 476.

The most significant factor was the number of chicks that fledged. A total of 379 nests progressed to the chick stage and 342 juveniles fledged, showing that 2017 was an “extremely good vole year with an abundance of prey available.”

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