Like most wild birds, the barn owl is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA) 1981, as amended. This makes it an offence to kill, injure or take a barn owl; take, damage or destroy the nest while that nest is in use or being built; and to take or destroy an egg.
The word ‘take’ means catch, capture or have in one’s possession. It is legal to pick up a sick or disabled wild owl, provided the sole intention is to release it as soon as it is deemed capable of survival.
As barn owls are listed under Schedule 1 of the WCA, they benefit from extra legal protection against disturbance while nesting. Barn owls in the UK, as the name suggests, often choose to nest in barns or buildings falling into dereliction and disrepair. They also nest in hollow trees such as mature
and veteran oaks.
As ecological consultants, we would recommend a barn owl survey on proposed development sites where there are potential nesting sites for the species.
This is not only to ensure that offences under the WCA are avoided, but also to avoid a negative impact on a protected species of conservation concern, as required by local authorities under planning policy designed to protect biodiversity.
An offence under the WCA can be avoided by demolition or felling of potential nesting sites outside of the breeding season as the site itself receives no protection when the owls are absent. However, traditional barn owl sites can be re-used over long periods of time, not only by the same birds, but by successive generations of unrelated individuals, and even re-occupied by new individuals after long periods of absence. From a conservation point of view, it is therefore inconsistent that current legal protection does not extend to nest sites outside the nesting season.
Where we identify that barn owls are or have been nesting on a site proposed for development, our usual recommendation would be that the loss of the nesting site be compensated for by the provision of an alternative nesting location. This could be a nest box specifically designed for barn owls, or better still a nesting area incorporated into the roof space of an appropriate building. Barn Owls can become extremely tolerant of regular noise and activity around their nest or roost provided they have somewhere to hide. Even rural industrial units can become nest sites.
Further guidance on barn owl surveys and mitigation for proposed development sites is available from the terrestrial ecology team at Thomson Ecology. Records of barn owls can be submitted to The Barn Owl Trust, whose website has lots of interesting information about this species.