Yesterday, I went to chat to the volunteer member of the B.O.A.G for Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, as I am interested in getting involved.
The Staffordshire Barn Owl Action Group (B.O.A.G.) was set up in 2001 after it was estimated that there were only 30 breeding pairs left in Staffordshire. Numbers of barn owls have fallen drastically over the last 40-50 years as a result of urbanisation, changes in farming practices and a loss of nest sites due to felling of old hollow trees and conversion of old barns into dwellings. As a consequence the barn owl is now a schedule 1 protected species under the Countryside and Wildlife Act of 1981 and is also a Staffordshire Biodiversity Action Plan Species. In an effort to help reverse this downward trend BOAG installs barn owl nest boxes in areas where the habitat is suitable to sustain barn owls to encourage and provide roost and nest sites. With over 280 nest boxes across Staffordshire, BOAG monitors the boxes on an annual basis to establish which boxes are being used as nest sites. Where chicks are found and with permission from the landowner, they are ringed. This can provide BOAG with further information to help with the conservation work and build up a better picture of barn owl movement after fledging. BOAG has also been working with the Environment Agency for the last 5 years to provide 40 nest boxes along targeted rivers, river corridors provide good barn owl habitat. BOAG relies on the general public to contact them with records of barn owl sightings and to notify them of any dead barn owls that they may discover especially reporting any barn owls which have been ringed. The numbers of barn owls are considered not to be as low as first
estimated but barn owls struggle to survive and numbers hang in the balance. Many factors play against the barn owl so it is important that this bird is monitored and work continues to help in its conservation. BOAG can also give advice to planners and developers at sites where barn owls are present, to provide alternative accommodation and minimal disturbance. BOAG is a run by a small group of dedicated volunteers who hold appropriate Natural England licences and are trained to install and monitor barn owl nest boxes. A charge is made for nest boxes this covers annual monitoring, cleaning out and any repairs during the life time of the box.
It was really interesting to hear what these guys have been up to this year and learn about the wonderful work they do. There is a lot of dedication as they not only put the boxes up, but they also monitor them several times a year and if there are chicks, then these are ringed. Although there were less breeding pairs recorded at the sites this year, the number of chicks actually rose, which is good news for the barn owls. We just have to hope we don’t have such a severe winter now, so that those chicks have a chance of making it to maturity.
I also talked to the group about using trail cams to monitor some of the sites as they are finding it difficult. I am planning on doing some training with the group, and others in Staffs Wildlife Trust, as many of the group had not heard of them and could see how setting a trail cam up on a nest box for monitoring purposes would save many hours of sitting at sites, waiting for sightings. One guy told the story of one site which he had been monitoring for ages. He had never seen any evidence of barn owls in the area or using the box, despite watching it for many hours. When they went to open the box just to check, there was a male, female and chicks!! He could not believe it!
I also have a ‘MeerKam’ from HandyKam that the group think will be really useful. This camera is on the end of a bendy tube, with a remote viewing window. There is a site under a bridge that they would like to check out, but it is down a cavity in the bricks. In the new year, I am going to accompany one of the group with my kit and we are going to see if we can use it to tell us more about some of the more difficult sites to access and whether barn owls are using them.
My ultimate aim is to get a license to monitor boxes and also to learn how to ring as well.