A brood of Barn Owl chicks in Co Antrim ringed by conservationists. (Lough Neagh Barn Owl Group/PA)
Painstaking conversation work has yielded bumper broods of barn owls in Co Antrim.
Some 14 chicks have been discovered in nests by the Lough Neagh Barn Owl Group.
It comes after years of work by volunteers to help support the birds whose population has been under threat due to a loss of suitable habitat, extreme weather and the build up of toxins from poisoned prey.
Ciaran Walsh, from the group, said they have more than 70 nest boxes located across the countryside from Toome to the outskirts of Belfast and as far south as Moira.
The volunteers were able to access three boxes on Monday afternoon and place rings on the young birds to track their progress.
“We had three nests in total that we went round, the first nest had five chicks in it and we got to ring those, the second nest had five chicks in it and we got to ring those, and then the final nest had four chicks but they were all too young, too small to ring, but we’ll go back in a number of weeks time and ring those chicks too,” he told the PA news agency.
“We have another three nests but we can’t access those. They’re in chimneys of old farmhouses. We can’t get in but we know there are chicks there. Once they start to fledge, we’ll be able to count them but we’ll not get to ring those ones.”
Mr Walsh said the newest chicks can be traced back to a then record brood of five chicks found in the area in 2018.
It was then described as the largest barn owl brood recorded in Northern Ireland.
He said: “It’s pretty good, that all stems back to the very first nest with the five chicks, and those chicks moving out and finding mates and breeding, staying in the area and building up the local population.
“The first nest with the five chicks in it, were fathered by one of the original five from 2018.”
Mr Walsh said the numbers are good this year, but said conservation tends to have ups and downs.
He said recent good weather has seen mice and rats breed more which the chicks have been eating, helping them to grow to a strong weight.
“We knew it would come one day but it took its time,” he said.
“That’s the way conservation is, you get a couple of steps forward then you’ll have setbacks. It moves slowly but once it moves, it makes a big jump.
“They’re feeding well, one of the sites this morning we could see most of the prey were rats, and there has been a boom in young rats in that area and so the owl chicks are good and healthy as a result – the chicks were so healthy and heavy, his scales couldn’t weigh them – they’ve been eating well which is good as it sets them up well for the coming winter.”
The Lough Neagh barn owls have tended to stay within a 12km radius.
“We have put up loads of nest boxes, around 70 within a 12km radius, so hopefully they’ll go to those boxes and that’ll be next year’s growth,” he said.
He described keeping a check on all the nest boxes across the countryside as at times soul destroying.
He said: “But you do have to go and do it, we have boxes up at Toome, right out to the outskirts of Belfast and down to Moira so there is a lot of driving around, and most of the time they are just filled with jackdaws, not barn owls, so it is a bit soul destroying at times, but you know the good days will come like today.
“That makes it all worthwhile when you see the numbers starting to grow. If we hadn’t put the nest boxes up the birds wouldn’t be here. It’s a good feeling.”
In Northern Ireland, barn owls are protected by the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order. It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage, destroy or disturb the bird, the nest, the egg or the dependant young at any time.