Encourage barn owls to nest

Barn owl
Barn owl

SHORTLY before he died, my father eventually got around to building his dream house. It was as big and spacious as a Methodist Church and just about as liveable within.

It had a lovely view of distant Dartmoor and he estuary of the two rivers Taw and Torridge, about which he wrote many of his books including Tarka the Otter, Salar the Salmon, and The Pathway.

Super location, but the house was far too big to heat and the small ballroom where father imagined farmhouse parties would be held by dancing countryfolk, in the style of something from Tess of the D’Urbevilles, was awfully inconvenient.

Also the breakfast room was on the top floor and a fireman’s pole connected that with the kitchens.

But it did have one brilliant idea, which was a hole in a gable that led on to a spacious nesting box for owls. Before the house was completed, a pair of owls had moved in.

There were just no other nesting holes in trees or houses or barns as had been the case in the 1920s when father lived first inDevon.

The owls reared five youngsters and the snores of the brood kept us awake in the nearby tents where we camped.

Father had called the first cottage where he lodged after the First World War, Skirr Cottage, because the barn owl nesting under the thatch made that strange hissing noise as greeting to one another.

Today it has become fairly common for farmers and owners of country houses to erect barn own nesting boxes on trees and buildings after publicity and know-how given by the RSPB. But not enough. These boxes do not cost much and if placed near your property would help keep down rats and mice which infest all such places.

Details can be found on any RSPB website. The Sussex Bird Report published every year by the Sussex Ornithological Society (SOS) gives details of every bird seen each year in Sussex.

A recent report for West Sussex alone shows that 44 barn owl boxes had been put up in barns, 28 on trees, one in a quarry, one in a workshop and one in a cavity in an old railway bridge.

One had actually been built into the gable of a converted barn which was occupied now by humans. This resulted in 86 pairs attempting to breed in West Sussex. In East Sussex 36 nests were attempted and there were fewer boxes as well than in West Sussex.

Most birds were in the western Weald. When food is scarce or when having to feed young, we often see barn owls quartering the hedgerows and meadows in broad daylight.

What a lovely sight, these birds as graceful and silent as ballet dancers floating across the sky with their large dark eyes held down, hoping to surprise a mouse or rat.

More than makes sense to get yourself one of those boxes if you do not already have one, surely.