AN ARTIST and conservationist has warned that the recent cold snap could affect the population of barn owls for decades to come.
Former Woldgate pupil Robert Fuller , whose wildlife paintings have become renowned, says that numbers of the endangered bird plummeted to dangerous levels when temperatures dropped as far as -15c through November and December, the lowest recorded in over a century.
Barn owls weigh an average of just 12oz and can survive a maximum of two weeks without food.
Their prey, mice, voles or shrews, retreat into a network of tunnels under the snow, leaving the barn owls to starve.
Robert Fuller, a co-founder of the Wolds Barn Owl Group which conserves barn owls in East and North Yorkshire, said: “If we get more of the bad weather we had in November and December it could take 10 to 15 years for the population across the Yorkshire Wolds to recover from this winter alone.
“This would be absolutely tragic.”
Mr Fulller, who lives in Thixendale, has been counting the casualties of this winter’s white out.
So far he has collected 24 barn owl carcasses from nest boxes and farm buildings in a five-mile radius from his home.
“One of the saddest sights I saw was one pair lying dead, the male with its wing protectively across the female,” he said.
Founded in 2006, the Wolds Barn Owl Group’s aim is to boost barn owl numbers in North and East Yorkshire by erecting nest boxes in areas where their natural nesting sites have been lost.
Mr Fuller, who is a wildlife artist and frequently paints barn owls, has put more than 130 nest boxes up on farmland across Ryedale and the Pocklington area.
Until the first of the heavy snowfalls last November, the project had been a success story and barn owl numbers were healthy.
Now the population has plummeted to dangerous levels.
“Last summer I checked just 25 of the nest boxes and all were occupied, many of them with breeding pairs.
“But when I checked the same boxes last week I found just four live owls.”
Among the casualties in the area Mr Fuller covers for the Wolds Barn Owl Group are barn owls that feature regularly in his paintings.
“I’d grown very fond of these particular birds as I had photographed them and painted them, it was like losing old friends,” he said.
Mr Fuller has been feeding his four surviving barn owls with mice caught in traps from his garden.
“I’ve had to use an electric propagator designed for raising seedlings to stop them from freezing solid.”
The wildlife artist has also supplied buckets of rodents and day-old chicks to neighbouring farmers who have reported seeing live barn owls on their land.
“It’s absolutely desperate, the precious few owls that survive this bitterly cold winter will be the founders of the next generation on the Yorkshire Wolds and we must do what we can to keep them alive.”