Barn Owls breeding success at Mount Stewart

Owlet being ringed at Mount Stewart

There is a richly diverse and vibrant eco system at Mount Stewart and we are delighted to confirm that this now includes a pair of breeding barn owls who successfully hatched four healthy owlets in late April.

There is a richly diverse and vibrant eco system at Mount Stewart and we are delighted to confirm that this now includes a pair of breeding barn owls who successfully hatched four healthy owlets in late April.

It is estimated that there are less than 30 pairs of barn owls in Northern Ireland, with the species having been in decline here for some time. To begin to address this on a local level, Mount Stewart has been working in partnership with Ulster Wildlife, who have been working on barn owl conservation for over 10 years in Northern Ireland by carrying out surveys, putting up nest boxes, advising land owners on land management, and supporting nest minders. Together we have been able to bring back barn owls to Mount Stewart through monitoring and no small amount of work.

There are a number of challenges facing the barn owl population in Northern Ireland including habitat loss, reduced food sources, lack of nesting sites and use of rodenticides. Across the water in mainland UK, voles make up the majority of the barn owls diet; we do not have voles in Northern Ireland and here wood mice, young rats and pygmy shrews make up the majority of their diet.

Since acquiring the Demesne at Mount Stewart in 2014, the Trust has introduced a number of nature-friendly farming measures that have benefitted a wide range of wildlife. The provision of barn owl boxes, planting of hedgerows and wild bird margins has created ideal conditions for barn owls to colonise the estate. Nature-friendly farmers in the surrounding area also help to support this barn owl pair.

A still from the wildlife camera of one of the breeding pair.
Barn Owl on Owl Box in Mount Stewart
A still from the wildlife camera of one of the breeding pair.

A breeding pair can typically expect to have three owlets, so the fact that we have a family of four owlets suggests the landscape is rich in resources for them. There is also a chance the pair will have a second brood!

Identifiable by their heart shaped faces and huge dark eyes, barn owls can live to seven or eight years old but average life expectancy is four years in the wild. They face many risks, such as being hit flying over roads and overhead power lines. At night they can appear to be white, however they actually have a mix of grey and amber toned feathers on their head, neck and back. Identifying the sex of an owl by sight can be very challenging, but females often have small black spots and darker feathers around the facial area and a more speckled bird is likely to be a female.

When it comes to choosing a place to nest, barn owls are notoriously fussy. They roost in trees on the edge of open ground and it has taken time to implement a number of changes on the estate to make it a more inviting  environment for these birds including the rewilding of large fringes around fields, reduced use of silage and pesticides and increasing arable cropping  But even with all this it was not until we added a nesting a box that we got our first breeding pair. The Mount Stewart rangers had been aware of a breeding pair on the estate and surrounding area for some time but it was not until the end of May that they discovered the inhabited nest complete with owlets. Using wildlife cameras our rangers have been keeping tabs on how our new barn owl family is getting on. Highlights from the cameras show the parents coming and going with cameo appearances from a fox and all ill judged visit from a pine marten who was promptly sent packing by both the owlets and their parents.  

Hugh Thurgate lead ranger & Jim McNair a volunteer ranger for Strangford Lough ringing Barn Owlet
Hugh Thurgate lead ranger & Jim McNair a volunteer ranger for Strangford Lough ringing Barn Owlet
Hugh Thurgate lead ranger & Jim McNair a volunteer ranger for Strangford Lough ringing Barn Owlet

In mid-June  ranger Toby hosted a live stream from the owl box where he was joined by Hugh Thurgate Lead Ranger for Strangford Lough who is a licenced bird ringer, Jim McNair a volunteer ranger and trainee ringer, and Katy Bell, Senior Conservation Officer from Ulster Wildlife, to ring the new owlets. Barn owls are a protected species and all work has been done under licence and by a trained and accredited ringer like Hugh. As barn owls are a nocturnal species ringing them in the daytime, when they would naturally be quite sleepy and subdued helps reduce the stress they may feel.

The owlets were about eight to nine weeks old at the time of the ringing and were in varying stages of development, some having started to gain their adult feathers, whilst the youngest of the pack was healthy but visibly smaller. Barn owl chicks hatch on different days so all chicks are not the same age. Each owlet was delicately and expertly extracted from their nest, receiving a quick health check from Hugh before an identification ring was comfortably attached to each bird’s leg.

So what’s next for Mount Stewart’s barn owl family? The owlets will fledge over the next few weeks and will continue to stay close to home and rely on their parents feeding them in this period. We would expect them to spend the winter at Mount Stewart or close by as Barn Owls are very faithful to a chosen site. By a year old they will be able to have their own chicks and we will continue to monitor activity in the area to see whether they stay or leave to find another territory.  As Hugh Thurgate, lead ranger for Strangford explains: “Data is critical. We need information on how these birds live and travel to inform how we manage the land to benefit nature and the environment around us”. 

If you come across an owl box please give them space. It is illegal to disturb nesting birds and disturbance from human intervention is another factor in their decline.  Senior Conservation Officer for Ulster Wildlife Katy Bell attests “Collecting data and logging sightings is half of the battle in preserving a species. If you have seen a barn owl or have a nest on your land you can really help by getting in touch with Ulster Wildlife. It is important for us to monitor the population of these birds so that we can put measures in place to help them”.

Keep watching our Facebook page for updates on the owls and the other inhabitants of Mount Stewart including the otters, pine martens, badgers and foxes.

Red squirrel at Mount Stewart

Help protect the Red Squirrels

Donate today and your contribution will go towards both the immediate short-term supplementary feed and monitoring of the red squirrel recovering population and our longer term woodland management to restore the habitats and biodiversity needed for a functioning woodland ecosystem.