Carolyn O'Grady visits the Muncaster Owl Centre, winner of the Federation of Zoos' award for successful education projects.
At the end of last term, children from Moresby primary school, near Whitehaven could be seen closely examining tall grass in the grounds of Muncaster Castle.
They were looking for vole runs, the miniature passages made by these tiny mammals in meadow grass, and discovering the connection between the runs, the grass and the barn owls. It was a powerful lesson in the importance of habitat in the conservation of animals and birds.
Habitat is an aspect of conservation which can be difficult to grasp. It may be relatively easy to see that the destruction of the rain forests means destruction of creatures; the connection between the loss of rough grasslands and the extinction of barn owls is harder to understand.
Making this connection is the main purpose of the education programme of the Muncaster Owl Centre, based in the grounds of the castle, near Ravenglass in Cumbria, and the home of the World Owl Trust, the only organisation solely concerned with owl conservation in the world. Captive breeding and release programmes and the conservation and restoration of wild habitat are its main work.
Birds are never bred for sale, pets or falconry or even for the zoo itself, but to be released eventually into the wild. Chief executive Tony Warburton says: "My dream is to have nothing to show."
Such is the centre's expertise in breeding owls that birds are sent here from all over the world. Recent work includes a project with the Philippines, a country whose rapidly diminishing rain forests are home to 12 kinds of owl found nowhere else. Several pairs of these owls will be sent to the centre for breeding. It is an act of faith as there is no assurance that a safe habitat will exist for the birds.
In 1930, it was estimated that there were 474 pairs of barn owls in Cumbria; in 1985 the number had shrunk to 77 and a recent count could find only 35, making it an acutely endangered species.
The main problem is habitat. Barn owls need coarse tussocky grassland or meadows, specifically hay meadows, which are allowed to grow during the summer months and are only cut once a year. Small mammals thrive there, and the vole makes up 60 per cent of a barn owl's diet. They are also an important food item for tawny owls, kestrels and buzzards.
In the UK, hay meadows have been largely replaced by more intensive methods in which fields are cut two or three times a year. Result: too few voles.
Before taking Moresby school pupils into the meadow, Tony Warburton leads them to one of the immaculately kept lawns outside the castle and explains why voles can't hide there or find the juicy kind of grass they need. He also introduces them to Georgie the barn owl, a beautiful creature who sits quietly on a colleague's wrist. Following Mr Warburton across a path to the luxuriant, flowery meadow on the other side, it is immediately obvious why this is a habitat more suited to tiny mammals and indeed all sorts of creatures and plants. Walking in the grass several pupils start spotting the many forms of wildlife which live there: spiders, worms, flies among them.
Tony Warburton reiterates the message: "What do we have to do to put back barn owls?" "Create meadows!", they reply.
Pupils then move on to the castle's zoo, with its 34 species of owl. They include the gigantic European eagle owl (a conservation success story), snowy owls, tiny pygmy owls and five species of British owl. Many are very rare indeed, their habitat so threatened there is no point in releasing them at present. As Mr Warburton explains, for these species, the centre is "a Noah's ark for owls".
* The Owl Centre, Muncaster Castle, Ravenglass, Cumbria CA18 1RQ. Tel: 01229 717393.