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.
I 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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