Northern Ireland

NI Wildlife charity in bid to protect 'banshee' barn owl

Barn owl
Image caption The barn owl population in Northern Ireland has dwindled

A Northern Ireland wildlife charity has appealed for help in tracking down barn owls - amid fears that the population has dwindled and is at risk.

The owl has been described as a banshee because of its distinctive white appearance and its silent flight that can catch people by surprise.

It is also called "the farmer's friend" because it feeds on the farmer's enemies, mice and shrews.

The Ulster Wildlife charity said it was one of NI's most threatened birds.

Last year's prolonged, cold spring made it the worst breeding season in 30 years.

The charity fears that numbers in Northern Ireland may have plummeted.

'Almost ghost-like'

The barn owl was once a common sight in local countryside, but now there are thought to be fewer than 30 breeding pairs left.

Extreme weather, loss of suitable feeding and nesting habitat, combined with the build up of toxins from consuming poisoned prey are the main reasons for the bird's decline.

The charity has launched a "Be There for Barn Owls" project, supported by Heritage Lottery Fund.

"We are urging everyone to give our barns owls a helping hand by contacting us with sightings of this beautiful bird or signs of their presence, such as nest sites or pellets," said Catherine Fegan, Ulster Wildlife's Barn Owl officer.

"The long days and warm summer evenings are a perfect time to watch out for this almost ghost-like bird hunting over fields or to hear its distinctive eerie screech.

"Sightings at this time of year are particularly valuable as breeding barn owls will reduce their hunting range to rear their young, so a sighting may be a sign that a nest site is nearby.

"It is only with this knowledge that we can identify areas where increased conservation effort will help make a difference to the long-term survival of barn owls and ultimately, see numbers of barn owls rise again," she said.

The barn owl is nocturnal and will hunt mainly at dawn and dusk.

Its favoured hunting habitat is rough, ungrazed grassland. It is silent in flight, but is often referred to as the "screech owl" due to the ear-splitting sound it can emit.

A barn owl usually appears completely white if viewed from underneath in flight, and has been described as a banshee in local folklore due to its ghostly appearance and ability to take people by surprise. Its efficiency in eating small mammals, such as mice and shrews, has earned it the nickname "the farmer's friend".

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