In search of barn owls in Westmeath
A survey aimed at finding out the state of Westmeath’s barn owl population is about to get underway, and a request has been issued for assistance from the public and landowners.
BirdWatch Ireland, which is conducting the survey, says that the barn owl was once a much more common sight throughout Westmeath – but in recent decades, barn owl populations have suffered extensive declines and are now a Red-listed Bird of Conservation Concern in Ireland.
"As a top predator and sentinel species for the health of our countryside, the declines in barn owl populations are extremely worrying," said an organisation spokesperson this week adding that the changing agricultural landscape has resulted in the loss of suitable habitats, including a reduction of prey-rich foraging habitat and nesting sites.
Alongside these land use changes and the loss of habitat, the increased use and increased toxicity of anti-coagulant rodenticides, and the expansion of major road networks are likely to be the main factors which have influenced the declines in the barn owl populations.
Although barn owl populations have declined over recent decades, there seems to be early indications that barn owl populations may be recovering in certain parts of their range, and BirdWatch Ireland want to establish if this is the case in Westmeath. One of the reasons for this recovery may be due to the range expansion of non-native small mammal species, the Greater White-toothed Shrew and the Bank Vole, both of which are recent arrivals to Westmeath and are taken as prey by barn owls and other predators.
The barn owl survey in Westmeath aims to establish how the species are currently faring in the county. The findings of the survey will be used to ensure the protection of nest sites and to direct targeted conservation efforts which will include the provision of nest boxes in suitable areas to help the local barn owl population.
"We are excited to be working with BirdWatch Ireland on this barn owl survey, which is funded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Housing, local Government and Heritage, through their National Biodiversity Action Plan Grant Scheme, with support from Westmeath County Council," says Heritage Officer Melanie McQuade.
"Local information will be really valuable to the survey and we are encouraging people to report sighting of barn owls in Westmeath."
John Lusby of BirdWatch Ireland explained the citizen science element of the survey, "It is a very special experience to glimpse the ghostly form of the barn owl floating silently over their hunting grounds in the dead of night, or to hear their eerie screeches and strange snoring calls. Everybody remembers such an encounter, and we are asking people to report this information to us, which will greatly help our survey efforts to locate nest sites and to determine the health of the barn owl population.
"We are also looking for information on barn owl nest boxes in the county. Many different groups and individuals have gone to great effort to help barn owls in Westmeath and have installed purpose-built nest boxes.
"We are aware of some nest boxes that have been put up and we will be selecting suitable sites and installing nest boxes through this project, but we also want to get a better idea of how many nest boxes are in place and the portion that are being used by barn owls, and we would ask anyone that has put up a nest box to let us know".
The public can help the survey and conservation efforts by reporting any information that you have on barn owls in the county.
BirdWatch Ireland also stress that barn owls are a protected species and can be very sensitive to disturbance, and that potential nest sites should never be approached or interfered with in any way.