Warmer world is good for the owls

Forty years of studying wildlife have convinced top North-East naturalist Brian Little that global warming is here - and is accelerating fast.

Brian Little

Forty years of studying wildlife have convinced top North-East naturalist Brian Little that global warming is here - and is accelerating fast.

Brian, from Blaydon in Gateshead, has plotted the fortunes of birds of prey in the Kielder area of Northumberland and since 1980 has been involved in a special study of tawny owls.

Tawnys are prospering at Kielder with 105 breeding pairs. The barn owl population in the North Tyne is at its highest for over 30 years, up from two breeding pairs a decade ago to 25 last summer.

Nest box provision in Kielder Forest has helped, but one of the main reasons for the owl boom is the lack of snow cover in recent years.

"Ten or 20 years ago, the whole of the North Tyne would have winter snow cover for several weeks and now we don't get more than a day or two," said 71-year-old Brian.

The snow cover of the past protected the chief prey of the owls, the field vole. "The snow also kept the rough grasses which the voles eat in pristine, chilled condition," said Brian. "But now the voles aren't getting the breather they used to."

This is good news for the owls and other vole predators like kestrels, buzzards, foxes, stoats and weasels, but a bad deal for the animal on everyone's hit list.

"The worst scenario is what happens if the vole population gets hammered. Predators like the owls are vulnerable if the wheels come off," said Brian. "These animals are being affected by climate change and at the moment the owls are benefiting. But it is absolutely clear cut that warming is happening, and there will be real problems.

"It is also happening much quicker than most scientists believed. It is happening incredibly quickly and I have watched flowers, insects and butterflies getting earlier and earlier, with Bird Cherry blooming in April instead of May, while this year I have never seen hawthorn bloom so early in the North Tyne." Brian has also made six trips to the Arctic and Antarctica. "I have seen at first hand what is happening to the planet. What was under many feet of snow 20 years ago is now bare rock."

A major wildlife festival is being staged at Kielder Water and Forest Park from May 14-20 to celebrate the area's emergence as a key habitat for plants and animals.

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Workers may be watchdogs in red squirrel survival battle

Workers employed by Northumberland County Council could be asked to become roving watchdogs as part of efforts to ensure the survival of the county's threatened red squirrel population.

Employees visiting remote areas of the county should be asked to look out for and report movements of grey squirrels and any instances of reds hit by the deadly pox virus, it was claimed yesterday. As fears grow that colonies of endangered reds could be wiped out by the virus spread by their grey cousins, one councillor is calling on the county council to do everything it can to prevent them becoming extinct.

Tomorrow South Tynedale Conservative Bill Purdue will ask his fellow councillors to support a motion calling on the county council to express its concern at the threat to red squirrels and do whatever is in its power to assist their survival. There have been recent signs that the reds are fighting back against the onslaught caused by the spread of the greys, some of them even being spotted in gardens and woods in the heart of Newcastle.

However, campaigners fear that any recovery will be quickly halted by the spread of the virus, which is spread by grey squirrels who can resist the disease.

Outbreaks have been reported in Tynedale and Castle Morpeth in recent months, prompting fears that the virus could reach a red squirrel reserve such as Kielder Forest, where it is estimated that 65% of England's reds now live. Coun Purdue recently attended a meeting in his home village of Allendale where various organisations were brought together to discuss the ongoing threat to the reds.

Yesterday he said: "The county council has a big workforce around Northumberland and I am sure there are a number of ways in which we could help the campaign to save the reds.

"For example, the workforce could act as eyes and ears about movements of grey squirrels in various areas and report reds with the pox virus. The aim of my motion is to ask the county council to look at what else we can do as part of this campaign.

"We could also look at measures to reduce the number of road deaths involving red squirrels, whether through signs or overhead rope walks. I am sure I will be pushing at an open door on Wednesday because red squirrels are an indigenous species and important to the ecology of Northumberland."

Campaigners are now battling to keep the pox virus out of the nine designated red squirrel reserves in Northumberland. People are being urged to report every sighting of live red and grey squirrels, any dead reds, and reds which appear sickly."

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Astonishing meals for chicks

Results of studies into what the Kielder tawny owls are feeding their chicks have astonished Brian Little .

Brian works with Newcastle University students to analyse the pellets from chicks which spend a month in the nest box.

They have worked out that around 2,500 field voles are delivered to 120 nest boxes. But an adult water hen, common sandpiper and even a fully grown carrion crow were on the menu.

But most astonishing of all was the adult female sparrowhawk killed by a tawny owl and brought back to the nest box for food. "It left me gobsmacked.

The sparrowhawk would have been sitting on her nest incubating her eggs in the dead of night with brain in neutral when the male tawny owl would have dropped on to her back and killed her and then lifted her off the nest like a helicopter."

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