SCBOP BARN OWLS
The Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project (SCBOP), founded in 2005, is dedicated to the conservation of barn owls and is now celebrating its 13th year. The project as a whole has advised on the fixing of over 2,000 barn owl nest boxes throughout Suffolk - on nature reserves, farmland and on community spaces like village greens and school grounds. A total of 1,774 of these boxes remain active. As more boxes were fixed between 2011 and 2015, the barn owl population further increased and, in the last six years, an average of 450 boxes have been occupied, a ten-fold increase that includes 2013 when numbers were down due to one of the coldest springs on record. Nowadays, East Anglia hosts the highest densities in Britain with coastal Suffolk and the river valleys accommodating one of the highest, rivalling North Norfolk, the hinterland that surrounds The Wash, N & E Lincolnshire and SE Yorkshire.
Spring 2018 Update
The 2017 Breeding Season
In 2017, SCBOP volunteers monitored 78% of its 1,774 nestboxes (down by 5% on 2016) and logged the presence of barn owls in 469 of them. This is close to 2016’s record 476 occupied boxes, but the most significant factor from our dataset is the number of young barn owls that reached the fledging stage. A total of 379 broods progressed to the chick stage and although 37 of these failed, a total of 342 went on to fledge, which is a project record. This clearly shows that 2017 was an extremely good vole year in Suffolk with an abundance of prey available.
2017 was undoubtedly an exceptional year for barn owls with monitors reporting high occupancy and productivity. This was partly due to another mild winter and good feeding opportunities early in the season. The vole cycle appeared to be at a peak and larders in boxes suggested that there was an abundance of food. A high vole population was apparent throughout the season, although there may have been a dip from August to October when a small number of chicks failed to fledge.
The Future and Fundraising
The project involves the whole community and boxes are made by local organisations and monitored by an army of expert volunteers each year. However, working at height to check boxes is not without risk, so we have maintained an extensive training programme to ensure that our volunteers strictly adhere to health and safety rules and have the equipment available to complete the task safely. Last summer we received worrying news that insurers were becoming nervous about providing cover for ladder work following accidents in industry involving people working at height that resulted in huge fines, so we needed to double our efforts. One way of reducing risk is to minimise ladder work and the project is fortunate in that it has a technical expert (Adrian Silverton) in its ranks who is in the process of developing a “Go-Pro” camera system that can be used to view the contents of barn owl boxes from ground level. Grants were received from the Dedham Vale and Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB sustainable development funds, prototypes made and tested, so we are now ready for rollout.
Training workshops were held at Assington Mill and Heveningham Hall during the winter of 2016/2017 and a further programme of events is planned for March of this year ready for monitoring work this coming season.
Adding the word “Community” to our project name worked very well for us and we must thank all those involved for their support. This truly is a “Community” project with every Suffolk parish being involved. The Project is already delighted to have received grants for replacement or repair of such boxes in the Suffolk Coast & Heaths and Dedham Vale AONBs’ Sustainable Development Funds (SDFs) and the development of the Go-Pro camera system. Such funding assures all of those volunteers involved that despite the project being 12- years old, it is still recognised as being worthy of continued funding. However, this money is restricted to the AONB areas, which is a very small part of SCBOP’s area, so we urgently need to seek funding to cover the areas outside the AONBs.
Further funding is needed to continue our programme of box repairs and replacement and to ensure that the most urgent repairs and replacements of dilapidated nestboxes take place, sometimes in the form of box replacements. The 1,774 boxes being managed under the SCBOP umbrella gives a combined asset value of nearly £250,000! Replacing all the boxes in the immediate future is not feasible, so we will need to prioritise. During 2017, we extended the longevity of many boxes with minor repairs carried out by our volunteer repair teams. This is a low-waste, low-cost approach and will ensure that the boxes get the longest life-span possible before replacement becomes essential. The rolling programme of box repairs by our volunteer team will ensure long term sustainability of the work.
Hand-in-hand with this rolling box repair programme we have equipped our volunteers with tools, equipment and materials and the necessary skills/training to sustain the work that will conserve Suffolk’s Barn Owls. This includes running Monitoring/Repair team training sessions to enable them to use harnesses, giving them the freedom to use tools at height.
SCBOP’s current management structure, involving coordinators and monitors, has served us well over the project’s 12-year history. However, in 2017 we received a number of setbacks and towards the end of the year we received the devastating news that Colin Carter, the project’s cofounder and area coordinator for NE Suffolk, was seriously ill. Sadly, Colin passed away just before Christmas and will be sorely missed by us all. Colin was inspirational, managed the finances in the early years of the project and helped set up barn owl box manufacture for a local disabled organisation Special Objectives for Local Disabled (SOLD). On top of this, two of our coordinators have stood down due to professional commitments elsewhere, so there is a need to change the project management structure. From this year, the project will be managed by six Area Managers, supported by a number of coordinators for each area. We are looking at each management area being autonomous, so each could continue independently should the umbrella organisation cease to operate.
Maintaining such a massive database for barn owls is not without its challenges, so SCBOP intends to be at the forefront in the development of this new system and hopefully one day it will be possible to enter data in the field whilst boxes are being monitored. We are also conscious that we have a huge database that holds a considerable amount of information, which will be useful for those carrying out research in the future. Security of our database is paramount and this year we will be working to further strengthen our systems to ensure that nest locations and landowner details are not compromised and are held in compliance with the Data Protection Act.
The success of Project Barn Owl was due to the hard work and dedication of the many fieldworkers and local coordinators from Suffolk, south Norfolk, north Essex, to whom we are very grateful. These conservation heroes have put their hearts into saving the barn owl for generations to come and should be applauded.
As well as the funders already mentioned above, we must also thank other principal supporters such as Chadacre Agricultural Trust (CAT), who have supported the project from the very beginning. CAT and other charitable trusts that award grants will be called upon this year to help finance the rollout of the Go-Pro camera system to allow monitors working outside the AONB areas to operate safely.
The input of local people should not be underestimated. There have been a number of barn owl parties, garden open days, evening lectures that have been specifically arranged to raise funds for the project. This funding has provided a significant contribution to the project, not only for the financial input but by getting people involved and allowing them to see barn owls and their chicks close up, a lifetime experience.
The project would not have been so successful without the enthusiasm and dedication of SCBOP’s Fundraising Officer Oka Last, Administration Manager, Kathy Piotrowski, and the Area Coordinators: Simon Evans, Patrick Barker, Chris McIntyre, Ian Archer, Roger Walsh, Andrina Warmsley, Edward Jackson, Dave Pearsons, Carl Powell, Alan Miller, Etienne Swarts and Colin Carter.
Since the birth of SCBOP, Colin Shawyer and his Barn Owl Conservation Network (founded in 1988), have been supportive and inspirational. Thanks are due to him for his guidance and for keeping us up-to-date with the national perspective.
Steve Piotrowski, Project Founder and Director, Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project – call on 01986 893311