Fears for Scottish barn owls as deaths mount up after snows

Recent harsh weather has been taking a grim toll on some of Scotland’s best-loved owls.

Barn owls have been doing well in some Perthshire glans, but the species is at the northernmost extent of his range in Scotland and is vulnerable during extreme weather conditions

Fears have been raised over the impact of heavy snow and freezing temperatures on barn owls after a worrying number of the birds were found dead in an area of Perthshire known as a stronghold for the species.

Barn owls can be easily recognised by their pale undersides and white heart-shaped faces.

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They are widespread across the UK, except parts of the Scottish Highlands.

This poor barn owl is among a number which have turned up dead, thought to have starved during recent heavy snow and freezing temperatures

Populations have suffered declines over the past half century, thought to be down to habitat-loss due to intensified agricultural practices and the effects of climate change.

This trend seems to have been halted in many areas, with numbers showing an upturn.

Scotland is currently home to an estimated 1,000 breeding pairs.

Aeas around Glen Quaich, Sma’ Glen and Glen Cuchil in Perthshire have seen numbers rise in recent years, with local farmers, shepherds and gamekeepers helping support the species by providing extra feeding, shelter and other measures.

But they are now concerned for the owls, which are vulnerable to extreme wintry conditions, after finding several bodies of birds thought to have starved to death.

The species almost disappeared from these same Perthshire glens following heavy snows of 2010 and it’s feared this may happen again.

Alice Bugden, coordinator for the Tayside and Central Scotland Moorland Group, said: “I have received multiple pictures of dead barn owls from local land managers.

“The birds have sadly perished in this harsh winter, unable to source enough food.

“We will not understand the devastating impact until the coming breeding season.”

Two of the fatalities had been fitted with rings, which enabled the group to trace them back to the local ornithologist who tagged them.

Both birds were last year’s fledgelings and had only ranged a few miles.

Gamekeeper Ben Stevens added: “I have a barn owl living in my barn and I know many shepherds and keepers in the area have similar residents in their barns.

“Sadly, I haven’t seen ours return in the last week, so I fear the weather has taken its toll on the poor bird.”

It took nearly three years for numbers to rise again after the snows of 2010.

But it’s hoped, given the relative health of the local population prior to the recent freezing weather, there will be sufficient survivors to restore the local breeding population.

Shepherd Ben Mackinnon said: “We have always had barn owls in our barns.

“During those tough snowy weeks I noticed a barn owl taking residence in our sheep shed, with the sheep in it.

“Clearly it was using it to predate on mice in the straw bedding because there was no food elsewhere that they could get at.”

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Barn owls are avid and stealthy hunters, silently scouring open grassland for small mammals such as voles, mice, shrews and rats.

They are usually monogamous, reuniting with the same mate each breeding season until one of them dies.

Barn owls are at the most northerly extent of their range in Scotland, and – unlike other owls – do not have leg feathers, making them susceptible to weather extremes.

The full extent of the impacts of the recent cold spell will be fully understood when licensed ornithologists return to track the birds this spring.

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