Co Down farmer celebrates after rare barn owls return to his land to raise brood

A Co Down farmer is celebrating after a pair of barn owls returned to his land to raise their brood.

It comes a decade after David Sandford first noticed a barn owl as he walked across his fields in Strangford and started working with Ulster Wildlife to help with conservationist work.

There are estimated to be fewer than 30 breeding pairs of barn owls in Northern Ireland in line with a decline in barn owl populations across the UK and Ireland over the past century.

The decline has been attributed to agricultural intensification, habitat loss, a lack of nest sites and increased use of rodenticides.

Mr Sandford’s 185-acre farm has developed into one of the most successful breeding grounds for the vulnerable birds in Northern Ireland.

He started by installing some nest boxes to complement nature-rich habitats he had created.

Four years later his patience and perseverance was rewarded when he discovered a pair of barn owls had taken up residence.

He said that he and his late wife Alison spotted the pair close to one of the boxes, before hearing loud snoring noises and screeches from the chicks begging to be fed.

The farm has now provided a home for 15 owlets, and a host of other dwindling farmland wildlife such as yellowhammer and Irish hare, with support from local nature conservation charities Ulster Wildlife and RSPB NI.

Farmer David Sandford holding a owl chick at a new barn owl nest site outside Downpatrick
Farmer David Sandford holding a owl chick at a barn owl nest site outside Downpatrick (Ulster Wildlife/PA)

He described creating habitats such as rough grass margins, uncultivated stubbles, dense hedgerows and woodland to provide a steady supply of prey such as mice, pygmy shrews and young rats to feed hungry owls, has been a “negligible cost” compared to the satisfaction and enjoyment of helping this endangered species.

“Knowing that we have provided a safe and productive home for barn owls is a huge privilege and a barometer that we are doing some things right on our farm,” he said.

He described one of his most memorable moments as witnessing fledgling owls honing their hunting techniques.

“Seeing them at such close quarters jumping on and off a round straw bale into the stubble, time and time again, was really special,” he said.

“It was a perfecting of a method that their very survival would shortly depend upon when left to their own devices by their parents.”

Mr Sandford also said that the ending of the Environmental Farming Scheme (Wider) scheme last year has created a gap in the successful delivery of on-farm measures for wildlife.

He said he would like to see future agri-environment schemes strengthened, properly funded, and more accessible to help farmers in their conservation efforts for barn owls and other wildlife.

“Leaving farmers high and dry with no support for the majority of farmland in Northern Ireland is highly regrettable,” he added.

“Wildlife is not something that can be turned off and on like a tap; however, given the chance it is remarkably resilient and with the right habitats and long-term support, farmers can really make a difference.”

Katy Bell, senior conservation officer at Ulster Wildlife, works closely with farmers and landowners to help reverse the decline of barn owls from providing advice on wildlife-friendly farming practices to erecting and monitoring nest boxes in suitable locations.

She commended David’s passion and dedication to securing the future of the barn owl, emphasising the vital role farmers play in helping nature recover, given the right support.

“Nature is in trouble across Northern Ireland, with one in nine species at risk of extinction, but farmers can be part of the solution,” she said.

“David’s farm shows how targeted management options such as wild bird cover and winter stubble, delivered through agri-environment schemes, have been effective in helping barn owls by ensuring a year-round supply of food.

“Alongside a network of safe nesting sites, barn owls are thriving on his farm, making it the most successful breeding site in Northern Ireland.

“The recovery of local wildlife depends on proactive measures like these.”

If you have seen a barn owl or would like to discuss measures you can put in place to help them, contact Katy Bell, Ulster Wildlife at