Homeowners are urged to preserve birds and other wildlife habitats during renovations

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Homeowners planning renovations and renovations are urged to consider wildlife such as barn owls and swifts whose habitats are in decline in Ireland.

The majority of Ireland’s breeding swifts, swallows, house swallows, starlings and barn owls nest in buildings and rely on man-made structures.

Cracks and crevices in abandoned farms are popular nesting sites, and if work is carried out without consideration of the wildlife residing there, it can lead to direct disturbance, as well as the loss of breeding sites.

As the government plans to refurbish 500,000 homes by 2030, BirdWatch Ireland is urging homeowners to remain alert to potential nesting sites in old buildings.

Last July, Alison Lynch and her partner received a surprise call from their builder while renovating their 200-year-old derelict cottage in North Cork. The builders had removed the tin roof and found a nest with three young barn owl chicks nestled in the old thatched roof below.

When the seven-week-old chicks, two males and one female, were examined by Alan McCarthy, barn owl research officer at BirdWatch Ireland, he also found dead prey in their nest – a few large white-toothed shrews and a wood mouse – evidence that the chicks’ parents were nearby after dropping off food.

The 200-year-old abandoned cottage in Cork where the nest of three seven-week-old barns was discovered by builders during renovation work. Photograph: Alan McCarthy/BirdWatch Ireland

The builders covered the nest again with the corrugated iron exactly as they had found it, and Mr. McCarthy and Mrs. Lynch returned at dusk to survey the nest.

“We looked from a distance under a small shed watching. . . after dusk, waiting for the adults to return,” McCarthy said. “Because they have a silent flight, you never hear them coming, you only see this ghostly white figure in the sky. And they came back. They came back to the nest three times with prey.

Ms Lynch and her partner halted their building project for the duration of the nesting season last year. Now there’s a new artificial nest box in a tree nearby, ready for barn owls when they return this year. They are site-faithful, returning to the same general nesting site each year.


One of the seven-week-old Barn Owl chicks that was found at the cottage in North Cork.  Photo credit: Alan McCarthy/ BirdWatch Ireland

One of the seven-week-old Barn Owl chicks that was found at the cottage in North Cork. Photo credit: Alan McCarthy/ BirdWatch Ireland

Red list species

“We think they’re back,” she told The Irish Times.

“I grew up on a farm and I don’t remember seeing them. They are beautiful. Sometimes at night when the mother or father returned or left the nest to feed, they would call.

Barn Owls are a Red List species of High Conservation Concern in Ireland. The intensification of agricultural practices has had an effect on their population.

John Lusby, head of raptor conservation at BirdWatch Ireland, said that if you go back a few generations, many older farm buildings had a specially designed owl-shaped window that gave them access to the space. from the attic – they could nest there. “It was considered extremely beneficial long before chemicals were used for rodent control.”

There were many examples of farmers reverting to old rodent control methods and encouraging barn owls by installing nesting boxes, he said. “But it’s not just about the nesting box, it’s also about the other measures. There’s a reason they’ve become rarer, due to the intensification of farming practices.

“To improve habitat, that’s where we see gains, improve habitat, reduce sprays and chemicals, increase grass margins which are good for biodiversity.”

He added: “The field mice are very important for barn owls and other predators. Everything is connected. If there are barn owls, there must be good populations of small mammals, but there must also be good margins of grass. Barn owls are a good indicator species – if they are doing well, other parts of the environment are doing well too.

Modern buildings don’t offer the same opportunities for wildlife, but there’s a lot landlords can do to improve modern buildings to ensure there’s space for nature, BirdWatch Ireland said.

Swifts, which are also a Red List bird species of high conservation concern here, have been coming to Dermot Doran’s farm in Kildare since he set up rapid nesting boxes around his own residential home.

Swifts are a Red List bird species of major conservation concern in Ireland.  Photography: Mike Taylor

Swifts are a Red List bird species of major conservation concern in Ireland. Photography: Mike Taylor

Improve biodiversity

“I went to a Bridwatch Ireland meeting in 2013 and the theme of the meeting was ‘Swifts in serious decline, how can we help?’ I just took that into account and when I came back from the meeting I thought, I love them and I could try to do something for them. The next morning I looked at different brands of boxes from Swift.

“I installed my first three boxes in 2014, having never seen or recorded a swift near my home. When setting up the box, it is recommended to put a lure on a loop and amplify it at different times of the day. What you are doing is calling them from heaven. They like to nest close to each other. They will come down and understand what is happening. Nothing really happened until 2016 when I caught my first pair. I had three more pairs in 2017. I now have 40 boxes at home and 15 pairs.

To improve biodiversity on his farm, he only cuts the hedges that line the road, and lets grass borders, nettles and thistles grow. Swifts, which eat insects on the farm, are an important part of the ecosystem, he says.

“When the first swift arrives, you know summer is here. It’s a bird of summer. When I see the first swift in the sky, which could be any day now, it lifts you up. He is a fabulous bird that is in decline and he needs all the help he can get.

“When they’ve finished breeding and they leave the nest for the last time, it’s amazing, they stay in flight until they come back the following year.

“They leave for Africa and they stay in the air for eight months. They feed on the wing, have been recorded mating on the wing, and roost in flight. It amazes me and I love their calls.

“The only time they touch a solid surface and perch is at the nest.”

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