Saving Aberdeenshire's Owls

A blog post by intern Eleanor reporting her recent work on a long term tawny owl research project, written Friday 18th February 2022

Tawny owls are the UK’s most widespread owl species, and the one most likely to be seen here in Aberdeenshire. They are efficient nocturnal predators with their large, sensitive eyes and precise hearing, preying on small mice and voles on territories of 30-50 acres of forest and grassland.

One of the main restrictions on where tawny owls can be found, apart from persecution, is the availability of suitable nest sites. They primarily nest in holes in large deciduous trees, however, mature woodland with trees big enough to house them is a rare commodity. Most of the forests in Aberdeenshire are conifer plantations, which are often young and lack any sort of large nest holes, and so for the last forty years volunteers have been putting up owl boxes in woodlands in order to ensure that this iconic species continues to thrive.

This enthusiasm for wildlife has resulted in over 140 boxes installed in the relatively small area between Aberdeen city and Echt. Virtually every wood or stand of trees has had an owl box in it at some point. The boxes are all placed around 3-4m up, most of them facing North-east so that the box does not overheat. All of them need to be checked during winter to ensure that the boxes are undamaged, emptied of the nests of stock doves or squirrels that might have used them the year before, and ready for the tawny owl nesting season to begin- a task that I have taken on for the first time this year, as the most recent in a long string of custodians.

On the outside, checking the boxes seems like a relatively simple task, but this year it has been complicated by the massive losses that the woodlands around Aberdeenshire have sustained this winter due to wind damage. Even forests that, from the road, appear to have come through the storms relatively unscathed, are often revealed to have half the trees lying on the ground. And nearly all of these affected woodlands have been conifer plantations. Obviously, all those fallen trees have meant a number of damaged boxes and makes locating them difficult- so far around 60% of boxes are missing- but it also has been a harsh reminder of the growing importance of creating woodlands that are resilient to wind and weather in these climatically changing times.

With the loss of woodland habitat, it’s hard to predict the success rate of this years’ breeding season; despite the high winds, this winter has been comparatively mild, and that usually correlates with high numbers of the small mammals that the owls need to survive, and therefore an increase in the number of chicks that can be raised. As tawny owls are declining across the UK, and are currently on the amber list for conservation concern, a successful year would be a welcome boost to the population.

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