A PAIR of barn owls have taken up residence at the headquarters of a conservation charity near Chester.
The news of the arrivals at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Bickley Hall Farm comes as latest figures reveal that numbers in Cheshire alone have plummeted by more than 80 per cent on the previous year.
Recent data from monitoring groups across the UK showed that 2013 was the worst summer on record for barn owls in the UK.
But the birds have this year decided to set up home in a specially-designed nestbox installed at the trust’s 200-acre farm near Malpas.
The barn owl remains a rare breeding bird in Cheshire, with just 19 occupied nests recorded last year, down from more than 100 previously.
It is believed the prolonged, cold and wet winter and spring last year contributed to the impact on breeding, with the British Trust for Ornithology recording a 280 per cent increase in deaths, with many of those surviving in poor health.
Charlotte Harris, Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s chief executive, said: “These figures make grim reading for one of our most iconic species, especially after so many years of hard work by volunteers to build up local barn owl populations.
“Just how long it will take to recover from the disastrous spring of 2013 remains to be seen.
“Thankfully, projects like our Living Landscape schemes are already making a difference in restoring habitats, like species-rich grasslands and floodplain meadows, which meant that we played host to one of the few successful pairs of barn owls in Cheshire last year, nesting at our largest reserve at Gowy Meadows.
“We can only do this, though, with the support of our members.”
Although the Cheshire Wildlife Trust was aware that owls occasionally hunted across their farm near Malpas, the arrival of a resident pair this year came as a surprise.
The trust’s Joe Pimblett said: “Myself and a colleague Matt had gone onto the farm to install the nestbox during the winter, when in the process of climbing up the tree we were greeted with not one, but two barn owls leaving a natural hole in the tree next to us.
“Realising we were obviously in the right spot we continued with the job, and in recent weeks have noticed that the birds are using the natural hole and now the newly installed box too.
“The owls are also depositing regular owl ‘pellets’ below, telling us they’re spending lots of time there roosting.
“Our hope is that we’ll be lucky enough to see the pair raise young this year, which would be fantastic timing as we open our brand new £120,000 teaching facility for young people just a short walk away in the farmyard.”
With the ongoing loss of suitable natural nest sites, nest boxes have become central to the barn owls’ recovery, with organisations such as the Broxton Barn Owl Group leading the way in installing and monitoring hundreds of nests every year.
Part of the Cholmondeley Estate, the charity’s Bickley Hall Farm is a home base for its herds of traditional native breed Longhorn and Dexter cattle, along with Hebridean sheep.
Other rare wildlife recorded at the site includes tree sparrows, great crested newts and harvest mice.