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Home birds: meet the barn owls setting up shop at Wilderness Reserve

Estate ecologist Steve Piotrowski gives us a potted history of the barn owl and explains why “Britain’s most loved bird” is back in Suffolk

A recent survey done by BBC Wildlife Magazine and the RSPB found that the barn owl is Britain’s best loved bird.

“They’re pretty spectacular things,” says Steve Piotrowski, estate ecologist at Wilderness Reserve. They perform what’s called ‘ghostly flight’, which means they fly from dusk, moving

It gives them that special air of mystique as they manoeuvre over meadows and along hedgerows searching out their main prey, the short-tailed vole.

But, the barn owl wasn’t always looked upon with so much affection. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, the barn owl was feared as a harbinger of doom.

According to The Folklore of Suffolk (1893) by Lady Eveline Gordon, the screech of an owl flying past the window of a ‘sick room’ signified that death was near.  

The barn owl was also once subject to persecution by gamekeepers in Suffolk, being hunted or banished from its natural habitat.

Following a census in 1932, the barn owl’s population in England and Wales was then estimated to be in the region of 25,000 pairs, of which 345 were in Suffolk.

Numbers fell sharply after the end of WWII as agricultural practices intensified and the use of harmful chemicals went unchecked. This decline continued until the early noughties: survey results showed that Suffolk’s population had declined to a mere 45 pairs.

Bird conservation efforts in Suffolk

In 2005, Steve spearheaded a conservation campaign to increase the population of barn owls in the county. “We found that one way we could help owls was to put up special triangular nest boxes. Our ambition was to put 90 boxes up in five years.”

The idea was picked up by the media and “everybody really fell in love with the idea”. Steve and his team ended up mounting 1,800 boxes and at least a third of those are now occupied. The barn owl population in Suffolk has since increased to 460, which is a ten-fold increase.

Steve’s lifelong passion for birds

Steve is the author of the Birds of Suffolk, which is the most up to date book on the county’s avifauna. He also represents quite a few organisations in the county:

He’s the president of the Landguard Bird Observatory, the president and chairman of Waveney Bird Club and the vice-president of the Suffolk Bird Group.

“I’ve been interested in birds since I was a child, now I do it professionally,” he says. “I take people on guided walks and foreign tours, teach bird identification techniques and undertake
impact assessments for developers.”

What’s being done at Wilderness Reserve

So when Wilderness Reserve approached Steve to advise on not only protecting but markedly increasing its bird population, he was delighted to take up the challenge.

“We’ve now got 75 barn owl boxes up on the estate. Roughly about a third of those – around 25 pairs – are occupied.”

But Wilderness Reserve didn’t stop there. Its aim was to increase species diversity and bird populations as much as possible. Steve, by now the estate ecologist, went on to mount 2,000 small tit boxes, along with boxes for tawny owls and kestrels.

Though, as Steve explains: “It’s also about creating the right habitat to attract a diversity of bird species. Having lots of woodland on the estate helps. This attracts breeding warblers who come in the summer.”

Wilderness Reserve has also worked hard in nurturing grassy areas to encourage voles – the owl’s prey – to breed. Reedbeds and wetlands were the next phase, which have begun attracting very rare bitterns and bearded tits.

Bird-related activities at Wilderness Reserve

A major part of the attraction of staying at Wilderness Reserve is that guests are rewarded with the chance to see birds they’re very unlikely to see elsewhere. “We’ve noticed our guests coming back year after year to see these birds,” says Steve.

Being crepuscular creatures guests can expect to see the owls flying around at either dusk or dawn.

The Dawn Chorus is one of Wilderness Reserve’s most popular outdoor activities in the spring/summer. “The cacophony of sound will astound you,” says Steve. “A variety of male songbirds sing to hold their territory and attract females.

Singing is all about breeding. When they’re not breeding they don’t sing, so you need to visit from the middle of March to the middle of June.

The rest of the year guests can enjoy our estate nature walks. Steve created carefully plotted nature walks through the estate that guests can take with a Wilderness Reserve Ranger.

“It is always important to measure our successes to ensure that we are achieving our ultimate aim – creating a haven for wildlife. One of my greatest pleasures this summer was counting and ringing the Reserve’s barn owl chicks,” says Steve.

Book your bird watching activity with one of our expert rangers now.

To find out more about Steve and the work he does in and around Suffolk and Norfolk, visit suffolkbirding.co.uk.

Culture, history, nature and lots of fabulous food and drink make Suffolk a place chock full of fun things to do. Here’s a small selection of our favourites