University research helps to save British Barn Owls

Posted on 19 March 2007

The Barn Owl used to be a common sight in Britain, but few people today are fortunate enough to have seen this most elegant of predators in its natural environment. In the last 75 years the country’s Barn Owl population has fallen by at least 70 per cent, the primary causes being the loss of suitable nest sites and hunting habitat because of agricultural intensification.

Now studies at the University of York have produced new recommendations which will help to make Barn Owls a familiar sight once again. The research, led by Dr Nick Askew in the University’s Department of Biology and supported by the Barn Owl Trust, has quantified the species habitat requirements and is now helping to focus conservation efforts across the country.

Our results will allow conservationists to assess the suitability of their local area for Barn Owls

Dr Nick Askew

"We combined information gathered by volunteers with modern mapping techniques to help identify the best areas for Barn Owl habitat creation and nest boxes," Dr Askew said. "There is an army of volunteers in Britain working to conserve this popular bird. At present there are only 4,000 pairs in Britain and more conservation effort is needed. Our results will allow conservationists to assess the suitability of their local area for Barn Owls and make more informed decisions on how to help the species."

The research findings have formed the basis of a new advisory leaflet on Barn Owl conservation produced by the University of York, RSPB and the Barn Owl Trust. The leaflet includes nest box designs, a guide to government subsidies, a conservation action map of Britain, and habitat creation advice.

"This new collaborative leaflet is a comprehensive guide to Barn Owl conservation and incorporates our findings" said Dr Askew.

"For example, previously habitat advice was the same regardless of where you live. However, we found Barn Owls had different requirements in arable, pastoral and mixed agricultural areas. Consequently, we have been able to make new habitat recommendations which are specific to these three landscape types."

He added: "In Britain today there are thought to be more Barn Owls in captivity than in the wild, a trend that may be increasing following the popularity of Harry Potter and his magical helpers!

"By using the Barn Owl as a ‘flagship species’ to promote conservation action, we hope that the national population decline of Barn Owls may be reversed, along with that of many other nationally threatened species."

Notes to editors:

  • Dr Nick Askew completed his doctorate in the University’s Department of Biology in November 2006. His research was funded by the Barn Owl Trust, Environment Agency, Central Science Laboratory, Natural England and the University of York.
  • The Department of Biology at the University of York undertakes a range of ecological projects in the areas of theoretical and applied ecology, biological conservation, behavioural ecology, molecular ecology and evolution.
  • Leaflets are available free from the RSPB. Contact: publications@rspb.org.uk and ask for "Bird species sheet: barn owl - stock code 24-286". Alternatively the leaflet can be viewed or downloaded from the Barn Owl Trust website www.barnowltrust.org.uk

Contact details

David Garner
Senior Press Officer

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322153