Barn Owl Project

Barn Owl Project

Walkers of the Coalisland Canal pathway may have noticed towering structures along the quieter sections of the route.

Assisting the Dungannon & South Tyrone Biodiversity Action Plan, through the Ulster Wildlife Trust’s ‘Home to Roost’ project, 5 ‘pole mounted’ barn owl boxes were erected and an additional ‘tree mounted’ box put in place.  This activity is aimed at delivering practical action for this rare and vulnerable species.  In a first for Northern Ireland, the boxes were mounted on old telegraph poles, a method that has worked well in wetlands habitats such as those of the Norfolk Broads, East Anglia.

Sightings of barn owls are all too rare, partly because they prefer to hunt at night under the cover of darkness (although they can occasionally be seen hunting during the day), and partly because there are so few to begin with.  It is one of our most threatened bird species, with a population perhaps as low as 40-50 breeding pairs in Northern Ireland.  On the positive side, it is thought that the Mid Ulster area may be home for a reasonable proportion of these.  Through a campaign to track the location of these pairs, the vicinity of the disused canal outside Coalisland turned out to be a favoured haunt for the elusive species.

With its flat heart-shaped face, dark brown button eyes and distinctive pale colouring, the barn owl is regarded by many as one of the prettiest and most appealing birds in Ireland.  They usually hunt at night over open countryside searching for small mammals.  Rough grassland, woodland edges, and along roadside verges and hedges are typical habitats for spotting a barn owl searching for prey.  If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a ghostly bird in your headlights as a barn owl takes off from its perch, or flies across a country lane in front of your car.

If getting a fleeting glance of this phantom-like bird at night is not eerie enough, it’s drawn out ‘shreee’ scream, shattering the peace of a quiet night is spooky enough to send a shiver down your spine.  Many mythical tales describing encounters with Banshees can be attributed to the sight and sound of the barn owl.

The habitats along the Coalisland Canal offer great feeding opportunities for barn owls, but there appears to be a lack of suitable nest sites in the area.  The hope is that these birds will be tempted to use the pole-mounted boxes.  Unfortunately, little is still known about the species in Northern Ireland and the factors which have caused its decline.  However, if evidence can be found that even one box being used, it will make a significant contribution to the knowledge of these amazing birds.

We would be delighted to hear from anybody that has recently seen a barn owl anywhere in the Mid Ulster area.  However, please do not disturb the barn owl in any way.  They are protected under the Wildlife Order and it is an offence to disturb the birds or their nests.

So keep your eyes peeled while taking an evening stroll along a country road and if you are lucky enough to see one of these mysterious birds, Mark Edgar, Biodiversity Officer with Mid Ulster District Council would be delighted to hear from you. (Contact details above)