Land managers in an area of Perthshire renowned for high barn owl breeding success fear heavy snows could have spelt the worst winter for the species in over a decade.
While numbers of the birds of prey have declined alarmingly due to changing farming practice and climate change, Glen Quaich, Sma’ Glen and Glen Cuchil in Perthshire have seen numbers rise in recent years.
Management by local shepherds and gamekeepers offers a bountiful food supply and the owls find shelter in many of the scattered farm barns.
Sadly, however, local farmers, shepherds and gamekeepers have been picking up bodies of dead birds which have starved in the rigours of winter.
The full extent of the impact of the snow cover in January and early February is only expected to be seen when licensed ornithologists return to track the birds this Spring.
Scottish barn owls are at the most northerly extent of their range and, unlike other owls do not have leg feathers, making them susceptible to weather extremes.
In these Perthshire glens the barn owl almost disappeared in the heavy snows of 2010 and, naturally, land managers are fearful this may happen again. However, the residents bounced back to healthy numbers again in a relatively short period.
Alice Bugden, co-ordinator for the Tayside and Central Scotland Moorland Group said: ‘I have received multiple pictures of dead barn owls from local land managers. The birds have sadly perished in this harsh winter, unable to source enough food. We will not understand the devastating impact until the coming breeding season.’
Two of the fatalities had rings which enabled the group to trace them back to the local ornithological ringer who fitted them.
Both were 2020 birds and had only ranged a few miles.
One farmer’s wife, who asked not to be named, said: ‘We are saddened to hear the ringed owl we found in our barn only nested at the end of the drive. We also found a further two barn owls dead in the barns as well. It is just devastating how badly they have been effected by this winter; however, it is no surprise as a lot of animals, including our hill sheep, have struggled.’
Gamekeeper Ben Stevens, added: ‘I have a barn owl living in my barn and I know many shepherds and keepers in the area have similar residents in their barns. Sadly, I haven’t seen ours return in the last week, so I fear the weather has taken its toll on the poor bird.’
Given the relative health of the local population, prior to the harsh winter, it is hoped there will be sufficient survivors to continue the breeding population.
It took nearly three years for numbers to rise again after the snows of 2010.
Only now, with a number of mortalities, are locals realising how brutal the snowdrifts and freezing temperatures were for the owls.
Shepherd Ben Mackinnon, said: ‘We have always had barn owls in our barns. During those tough snowy weeks, I noticed a barn owl taking residence in our sheep shed, with the sheep in it.
‘Clearly it was using it to predate on mice in the straw bedding because there was no food elsewhere that they could get at.’