The future is looking a little brighter for the barn owls of Aylesbury Vale thanks to the dedication of the volunteers who make up the local collective intelligence known as BORG – not the alien species encountered in Star Trek, but the Buckinghamshire Owl and Raptor Group.
During recent years barn owls and other raptor species throughout the UK have been in serious decline, as a result of reduced feeding opportunities due to changes in agricultural practices, loss of suitable nesting sites and, most recently, the severe weather conditions at the start of this year.
BORG is Aylesbury Vale’s response. To date the group of enthusiastic, licensed volunteers has erected and monitored nearly 350 barn owl boxes, 105 tawny owl boxes and 190 kestrel boxes throughout Buckinghamshire.
The numbers of young birds ringed and successfully fledging was steadily increasing until disaster hit in 2011.
Over the next two years the UK suffered its wettest and coldest winters for decades and as a consequence owl and raptor populations, together with many other species, suffered a severe fall in numbers.
Adult birds died, or failed to reach an adequate breeding weight, due to the prolonged snow and lack of hunting opportunities. There was subsequently an 82% reduction in the number of birds ringed in 2013.
Given such statistics, dosuch conservation schemes really work, or are they just a waste of time and resources?
The growing number of “des-res” erected by BORG volunteers to replace lost natural nesting sites, together with a super-abundance of mice and voles (favoured food items of owls and other raptors) during the last two years, has led to our feathered friends making a comeback.
So far, this year’s results are very encouraging, with the volunteers –who include Mentmore’s Karen Thomas and Cheddington’s Lynne Lambert covering the Mentmore, Cheddington, Wing, Wingrave, Ivinghoe and Pitstone area – reporting an increase in the numbers of successful nests and the subsequent fledging of youngsters.
By the end of June numbers were definitely up; with 201 eggs laid and 158 chicks hatched and ringed – a 1,316% increase on last year – and there are signs of second broods already taking place this year.
The team have had many interesting stories to tell too, from the tumbling escapades of the peregrine chick, as reported recently in the local press, to the heaviest adult female Tawny Owl in Bucks, which weighed in at Thornton College at 545g some 100g heavier than any other adult female this year.
They have also seen many cases of house-swapping this year too; with tawny owls in barn owl boxes, tawny owl’s in kestrel boxes, kestrels in barn owl boxes and one little owl family who obviously thought the more spacious barn owl residence next door to be far more desirable than their own special box!
BORG’s chairman, Alex Matthews, who is a volunteer with the group in the north of Bucks, said: “We are delighted that the owl population in Bucks has seen a real recovery in 2014. It could be a record year for us; we’ll know for certain in a few months’ time. In the meantime BORG would like to thank landowners and its supporters for all their hard work in helping achieve this.”
The work carried out by BORG is much more than just erecting boxes. It has enabled volunteers to train as bird ringers, linking in to the BTO national scheme, to provide talks to community groups and, most importantly, to engage landowners in the discussion of the wider issues of conservation. These discussions have led to the implementation of simple things such as hedgerow planting and pond creation, to the discussion of more complicated issues such as rodenticide application and deaths of birds on roads.
If you would like to become a volunteer, or if you are a landowner or farmer with a suitable site and could sponsor the erection of a nest box, or if you simply want to make a donation to help fund BORG’s work contact the group via post at BORG, Haydon Mill, Rabans Lane, Aylesbury, Bucks, HP19 8RU, by call 01296 435134 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.