Peterborough Barn Owl Recovery Project
Peterborough City Council became a key supporter of the Peterborough Recovery Project soon after its inception and continues to support this project as part of the city’s Environment Capital Aspirations. The project is also important in helping delivery of the Council’s obligations to biodiversity both under national legislation and the Councils own Biodiversity Strategy. The project has worked in partnership with landowners and managers to get barn owl boxes installed, maintained and monitored at suitable sites.
Between 1932 and 1985 the barn owl population of the British Isles fell by 70% and by 1985 was down to just 4000 breeding pairs. In response to this numerous Barn Owl Species Recovery Areas were set up in Britain in 1990 to address this disastrous decline. One of these recovery areas was identified at this time in the Fenland landscape to the east of Peterborough City. The project which followed is a partnership between Peterborough City Council and the Wildlife Conservation Partnership.
Barn owls are among the most protected birds in the Country being listed under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. As such it is an offence not only to kill, injure or take any wild bird or take/destroy its eggs or nest but also intentionally or recklessly disturb a barn owl while it is preparing to nest, at a nest with eggs or young or to disturb dependant young. A special licence is required from Natural England to undertake nest inspection and surveys of breeding barn owls which would otherwise result in a criminal offence being committed.
Barn owls can live in a variety of different landscapes but are most often found in areas of open grassland and woodland edge and will occupy home ranges extending 2 km from their nest location during the breeding season increasing to up to 5 km over winter. Within these home ranges two things are essential to barn owl survival, food and nesting opportunities. In the Peterborough recovery area work with local landowners, farmers and managers has been critical for the creation of feeding habitats along field margins and drainage ditches. These are well placed for the less intensive forms of management which benefit field voles on which the barn owls feed.
Barn owls will normally nest between March and August in cavities in agricultural buildings, trees and barn owl nest boxes. In years when food such as field voles is plentiful the owls can raise up to two broods of chicks. In years when food is in short supply, about one 1 in every three, breeding success may be very low. It is therefore not unusual for a nest site to be unoccupied in some years. In contrast to many other parts of the UK the Peterborough recovery area still has some barn owls nesting in agricultural buildings; however the majority of these are in purpose-built barn owl nest boxes which have been provided by the project.
Once habitats for feeding and nesting are taken care of there are still a number of threats to barn owl survival. These include traffic mortality from high speed roads, typically roads with speeds of 50mph or higher. Other factors can include the denial of feeding grounds by snow cover in the winter months as barn owls need to feed regularly at all times of year and will only survive a few days without food.
The Peterborough Barn Owl Species Recovery Project was initiated by Peterborough City Council in the early 1990s with the installation of a small number of nest boxes followed by monitoring to assess their use by barn owls. Since the recovery project was started the number of boxes has gradually been increased so that now the recovery area has 77 boxes. This along with improvements to feeding habitats has allowed the population of barn owls to expand from just 5 pairs to 65 pairs over the course of the project so far. As such the project in Peterborough is acknowledged as being one of the most successful barn owl recovery projects in the UK, holding one of the highest population densities of this species.
Before the start of the project, residents in and around Peterborough would have been very lucky indeed to see this charismatic bird of prey at all. Now barn owls can be seen regularly throughout the fens area and even as far into the city as the football ground car park!