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Wakefield Barn Owl Project

Wakefield Council in partnership with the Wakefield Biodiversity Group was awarded a grant from the SITA Trust for the conservation of barn owls in the Wakefield district. The Wakefield Barn Owl Project started in November 2008. The project aims to increase the range and population size of barn owls in the Wakefield district of West Yorkshire. The project will contribute towards the wider national strategy and project to conserve barn owls throughout England.

The national project has created new and extensive networks of rough, semi- natural habitat and installed artificial nesting boxes. The aim of which is to produce habitat connectivity and ensure the availability of suitable nesting sites; to aid the successful dispersal of young owls from farm to farm and from county to county.

The Wakefield project aims to form an ecological link with this national work by extending the installation of artificial nesting boxes along the river corridors and farmland of Wakefield and the immediate surrounding areas. The project will form another link in the chain of interconnected grassland habitats on farmland and riparian networks with suitable artificial nesting boxes; which is proving successful for the recovery of the barn owl throughout Yorkshire and England.

In the UK and locally in Wakefield the range and population size of barn owls has rapidly declined; estimated at a 69% decline in England since the 1930’s. Although still widely distributed throughout England, the species density is considered to be critically low. It is therefore included on the RSPB’s amber list of species of conservation concern; included in the Red Data Birds in Britain; is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan species (long list, old list) and is a Wakefield LBAP priority species. It is estimated that there are currently only 3,000-5,000 breeding pairs in the UK. In Wakefield it is a scarce resident, with the population estimated at less than 10 breeding pairs.

The main conservation issues for barn owls are degradation of once prey-rich habitats in the face of intensive agricultural practices and lack of suitable nesting sites, due to barn conversions and the loss of large, hollow trees. This project will try to address the latter issue in the Wakefield by putting up barn owl boxes in barns, upon the outside of farm buildings and on trees. Key to the success of the nest boxes will be locating them in the correct place i.e. next to suitable habitat type of an appropriate size.

The ideal habitat for barn owls is rough, tussocky grassland with a deep litter layer as this is where field voles (the Barn Owl's main prey) are most numerous. Grassland that lacks a deep litter layer is of much less benefit to Barn Owls - even if the grass is long, (Barn Owl Trust). To breed successfully a pair of owls and their young need to find 10,000 small mammals a year, this requires extensive lengths of grassland (15km long and 3m – 6m wide) along the banks of rivers, canals, streams, ditches and field margins.

Installation of the barn owl boxes will be carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Partnership. Regular monitoring and maintenance of the artificial nesting sites will be undertaken by Schedule 1 licence holders from the Wildlife Conservation Partnership.

It is hoped that the project will also promote a greater understanding of the decline and conservation needs of barn owls to landowners.