27 Feb 2014

The fate of the beauteous barn owl

Pickford purrs. Pickford flaps, Pickford peers, and jerks his head. Pickford is an owl – a barn owl – and his species is in trouble. And we, in large measure, are the cause.

Pickford is sitting on my gloved hand, to make a point. It is a point that is underlined today in a 120,000 signature petition being handed into Downing Street.

Pickford is, mercifully, relatively tame, and is in any case is accompanied by his mentor, Ray Prior, a full time falconer who looks after him.

27_owl_blogI am standing in a barn deep in the West Berkshire countryside at what was heading towards midnight last night. I’ve come to investigate the plight of the barn owl, one of the most British of birds, one of the most beautiful, and one of the most beloved.

David Ramsden, head of conservation at the Barn Owl Trust has driven all the way from Dartmoor to accentuate Pickford’s point. Numbers of barn owls in Britain have fallen in the last few years. 2013 was the worst winter mortality on record, and they’re thought to have suffered from a string of harsh winters and wet springs.

Mr Ramsden does not have a Pickford with him, he has a box. In the box is a dead barn owl.

There is a congealed spout of blood about the nameless barn owl’s nose. Otherwise she is a thing of beauty – white with mottled light brown wings. Beyond the blood she has a perfect ring around her face. So why did she die?

Above: Pickford the barn owl meets Channel 4 News’s very own Snowy owl.

“Rodenticides” says Mr Ramsden. That’s rat poison to you and me. Farmers chuck it about to fight the rodent threat to their grain stores. Though not here they don’t. On this farm they lay thirty traps around the 1,000 tons of grain in their store, but never poison, hence the continuance of barn owls here.

As we drive around looking for owls with our searchlight, James Saddler, the game keeper, shows us snipe lifting off in the dark, fabulous long beaked wagtails, and ultra rare ruffs. Tawny owls aplenty still mooch in the dark stubble at 1.00 am, and one lone barn owl.


Of barn owls tested this year, 84 per cent contain signs of rat poison, ingested by birds that have eaten an affected rat or mouse.

But it is not just rodenticide that is killing the barn owls – it is climate change and a cascade of extreme weather events. This very British bird is succumbing to very un-British weather.

We and climate change have a relationship. We and the barn owl have one too, but unless we move on rat poison and what we are doing to our planet’s delicate eco-system we run the terrible risk of losing both.

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11 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:


    Privatise the barn owls.

    That should save them.

    Or maybe it won’t.

  2. Meg Howarth/ @howarthm says:

    Thx, Jon. An important post. Have signed and RTd the petition. Sadly, I’ve never seen a barn owl, despite growing up in a one-pony village in Lancashire. You look scared, btw, or maybe just tired…!

  3. Peter Breuer says:

    If you want barn owls in your barn, build a sunken garden. Equip it as a mouse paradise, and keep mice in it. Feed the mice, and the mice will feed the barn owls. Just do not feed your pet mice in the sunken garden with rat poison.

  4. Gill Dodgson says:

    This is just terrible state of affairs and I hadn’t realised despite being aware of many species plight and our impact on the planet and gloabl warming. I would like to sign the petition-does it need any more signatures?

  5. Mark Ereira-Guyer says:

    Where I live here In Suffolk we have some barn owls, but they are in dire need of some TLC. Abundance has gone everywhere with our birdlife and we have a government that stubbornly refuses to care, take action and even have ministers who could even fake sympathy! How very very sad.

  6. David Crouch says:

    At the start of your broadcast on Barn Owls you showed a picture of a Snipe and claimed it was a woodcock.
    How can I trust your report if it is that inaccurate in such a basic matter.
    How did you try and balance it?
    The past two springs have been awful when Barn Owls need to fatten up to breed.
    Nobody wants rodenticides to be used unprofessionally so please to not high light it in an un professional manner.
    David Crouch (Barn Owl enthusiast)

  7. Alan says:

    Important post, for me that is. Get the feeling you are being marginalised? Your sphere of reporting appears to be shrinking….barn owls?? We have no facts but you remain more independent of thought than other of your colleague I could mention.

  8. Lee Garrington says:

    Another major factor in the Barn Owl’s decline is farming practices. The species has actually been in decline since the end of the second world war when the Government encouraged farmers to destroy hedgerows and farm wider areas. Barn Owls need rough grassland not manicured fields in order to find their prey. If more farmers were to allow a little of their land to return to the way nature intended it would have a very positive impact for the species.

  9. H Statton says:

    I find myself looking at the epitome of wisdom, erudition, beauty and sophistication; and a bloke. :)

  10. margaret brandreth-j says:

    I have seen many barn owls in the evening around the countryside where I live.What is disappearing is the owls habitat. They are called Barn owls for a reason.Perhaps northerners cannot afford as easily to buy up barns in their area for conversion.

  11. charlotte fadipe says:

    Hello Jon,
    You probably don’t remember me but I worked for C4 news a long time ago!
    Anyway I’m now in California and I am giving you a heads up that the California Environmental Protection Agency -(Dept .of Pesticide Regulation) has taken action rodenticides…It is an issue that has been in the media a lot recently.

    The department has adopted a regulation that makes second generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs) California restricted materials. This means in effect that the products could no longer be sold on store shelves and they will be out of reach to the general consumer.

    The regulation affects all pesticide products containing the active ingredients brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difenacoum, or difethialone.

    DPR has been aware that these products may be hazardous to wildlife and this regulation should mitigate these effects.

    As you may know, after liaising with other government agencies including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), DPR became concerned that California’s wildlife are exposed to and may be adversely affected by certain pesticides known as second generation rodenticides. (While one dose kills, it takes several days and the pest will continue to eat the rodenticide, building up the amount of that remains in their body tissue. When wildlife eats the poisoned pest, they end up being poisoned as well). After reviewing available data, DPR believes that exposure and toxicity to some wildlife from second generation anticoagulant rodenticides is a statewide problem in both urban and rural areas.

    DPR is currently working with retailers to inform them that these products will not be allowed to be sold in California stores effective July 2014
    You can read more about the regulation here. Here are some highlights

    • These products (known as SGAR) will be removed from retail store shelves by July 1 2014.
    • The SGAR products will now become a California Restricted materials – This limits their use to certified professionals, and, if not a structural pest control business, then only under permit of a County Agricultural Commissioner.
    • SGAR products can only be purchased from a DPR licensed pest control dealer, by a certified private applicator or certified commercial applicator.

    • These products are registered in California only for use in and around buildings and they would continue to be limited to such use. They are not legal to use on agricultural land or on golf courses unless their intended use is to keep rodents out of a structure.

    Here is a quote from DPR director Brian Leahy that you may use:

    “This is a practical sensible regulation that goes a long way to protecting our wildlife,” said Brian Leahy, DPR Director. ” Second generation anticoagulant rodenticides can contain some pretty powerful chemistry. Restricting the use of SGARs to only certified applicators will significantly reduce unintended exposures to non- target wildlife.”

    Charlotte Fadipe
    Assistant Director, Communications.
    Ca. Dept. of Pesticide Regulation
    California Environmental Protection Agency

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