Farming intensification has hit barn owls hard, but it doesn't have to be this way – Philip Lymbery

High above a hilltop woodland, shapes were dancing in the darkening sky, like giant butterflies. There were about 40 of them, a silent flurry of swirling wings and tails.

Barn owls have struggled as a result of the intensification of farming (Picture: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)
Barn owls have struggled as a result of the intensification of farming (Picture: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)

With a flap and a glide, they would melt away among the trees of oak, birch and pine. These were red kites at their winter roost, on the outskirts of the village where I lived in Hampshire, England.

As they disappeared for the night, I caught a glimpse of a ghostlike figure: the white of a barn owl drifting silently along the hedgerow, his piercing dark eyes scanning for breakfast. In this single scene, birds of both day and night came together in the last moments of daylight.

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In Britain, red kites used to be very rare. When I first started watching wildlife in the 1970s, there were only about 40 red kites left in the country, every one of them in remotest Wales. Now, these magnificent raptors have made a dramatic comeback. Here in the South Downs, barn owls too are doing well, but in the wider countryside, all is not well.

Birds have been my passion since I was seven years old. I have always been particularly fond of barn owls, and I’m not alone. Enigmatic but easy to recognise, they’ve been voted Britain’s favourite farmland bird. Back then, little did I know that the birds I loved were vanishing. In my lifetime, Britain has lost 44 million birds at the rate of a pair every minute.

It is changes to farming that have presented perhaps the gravest danger. Once upon a time, barn owls were a common sight over fields and farm buildings. Most farms had a pair. Now just one farm in seventy-five has a nesting pair of barn owls.

The irony is that barn owls do a great service to farmers. Like flying cats, they scoop up large numbers of voles, mice and rats. They hunt mainly at dusk or during the night, with their sensitive eyes and even more impressive hearing. They can catch prey in total darkness guided by nothing more than rustles and squeaks.

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The fundamental problem is that the vast majority of farmland these days is intensively managed. Which means there’s very little room for nature. Small mammals for example – the prey of barn owls – have very little habitat in which to survive. Barn owls need small mammals to eat, but their main prey, the field vole, doesn’t generally burrow underground, and thus rely on being concealed by its habitat to survive.

In intensely farmed fields, without rough grassland, hedgerows and thickets, tiny furry creatures like field voles have nowhere to hide. And barn owls are left with nothing to eat.

For the time being, Britain’s barn owls are holding their own and red kites are on the comeback, but other once common farmland species have been decimated.

Birds including turtle doves, grey partridges, corn buntings and tree sparrows have declined by 90 per cent or more over the last 50 years. In recent decades, two million pairs of skylarks and a million pairs of lapwings have simply disappeared.

To its credit, the UK Government hasn’t tried to hide what’s going on. It has admitted that the “intensification of farming” is behind the declines, citing the loss of mixed farming, increased pesticide and fertiliser use, and the removal of hedges as having robbed birds of suitable places for nesting and feeding.

For decades, farmers have been encouraged to focus on production, seemingly at any cost. The general view is that if a farm isn’t producing more per hectare, then it’s failing. It may sound cost-efficient, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, not only in terms of the wider cost, but even in terms of the bottom line for individual farmers.

One game-changing farmer is Tim May, whose family have farmed for four generations near Basingstoke, in Hampshire. He’s seen the farm go through a predictable transition, with hedges ripped out to make fields bigger for chemical-driven arable cropping. Now he’s trying to do something different. Sheep and cattle have been reintroduced to the farm, grazing swathes of pasture on a rotational basis.

May feels that he has brought the farm back to life, or as he puts it on his website, “back to the future”. In switching from intensive arable to mixed land use, May has been able to reduce the amount he spends on expensive chemical pesticides and fertilisers. The change has also transformed his relationship with wildlife. Barn owls are taking advantage of the more favourable conditions, with field margins and hedges now alive with yellowhammers, chaffinches and sparrows.

But when the system is stacked toward intensification, to go against the grain can be hard. May told me that he had done much soul-searching through the process: “I’ve had to learn to understand myself, as well as other people, and how to manage change. That’s been by far the greatest challenge.”

Despite the difficulties, he’s kept going; I asked what pulled him through? “Having that vision,” came the reply.

It is for that very reason that we all need to support nature-friendly farmers transitioning to regenerative farming. Not just to fill the fields and skies with bird song, but for all the eco-systems upon which we all depend.

There is no doubt that, in the face of the current nature and climate crisis, we will all be stronger if we work together. For me, it’s important that future generations can get to enjoy the same awesome sight of a barn owl in flight that I did as a boy.

Philip Lymbery is global chief executive of Compassion in Farming International, a United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf

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