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University research aims to save Barn Owls

Posted on 24 March 2003

British Barn Owl population falls by 70% in 100 years

The Barn Owl was once a common British bird, but it has experienced a massive population decline over the past century.

New research at the University of York will seek more information about the owls' habitat and prey requirements, and use this knowledge to strengthen national conservation plans for the species.

The research, carried out by Nick Askew in the Department of Biology, is focused on the Derwent Valley in North Yorkshire. "Through intensive survey work in the Lower Derwent Valley over the past four years," he said, "I have found that the area could hold one of the densest populations of Barn Owls in Britain today - if not in Europe".

Although the Barn Owl used to be a common sight, few people today are fortunate enough to have seen this most elegant of predators in its natural environment. A severe population decline over the past 100 years has seen the British Barn Owl population fall by nearly 70%.

This is as a consequence of agricultural intensification, which has resulted in a loss of suitable hunting habitat and nest sites over this period. Barn Owls require areas of rough grassland habitat where they hunt for their preferred prey - the field vole.

By his research, Nick Askew hopes to increase the understanding of the Barn Owls' habitat and prey requirements. He intends to assess how the Government's agri-environmental schemes could be used to aid the conservation of the species nationally. These schemes provide financial incentives for farmers to create and manage suitable habitats for farmland species.

"In Britain today there are thought to be more Barn Owls in captivity than in the wild," Nick Askew said, "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 habitat creation and management schemes, it is hoped that the national population decline of Barn Owls may be reversed along with that of many other nationally threatened species."

Notes to editors:

  • Nick Askew is a doctoral student in the University's Department of Biology. His research is part-funded by DEFRA (Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs).
  • The Department of Biology undertakes a range of ecological projects in the area of animal (especially mammal) ecology, behavioural ecology, molecular ecology and evolution.

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David Garner
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