OWLS IN SOUTH GLOUCESTERSHIRE
South Gloucestershire was created when the old county of Avon was divided. It covers the northern region of the city of Bristol and from the city suburbs the housing feathers out into countryside that stretches up to Cirencester, across to Stroud and over to Bath. As someone who has lived here all my life, it is a great, safe place to live with a great council who have a commitment to the environment.
However, if you are an owl that is hatched on South Gloucestershire, things may turn out to be quite different. Despite my efforts, and those around me that work to raise awareness of ways to help owls, there is still a lot of ignorance to the needs of owls and other birds of prey, and only a small amount of land is owl friendly. This situation frustrates me - especially when the local public say to me ‘I never see an owl?’ - I wonder why?
(text written 2012)
Many farms have folded over the years and new ownership has diversified the use of the land, so if fields are not used for grazing, they are often cut for hay either to supply the local growing horse fraternity, planted with crops or otherwise. Only a small percentage of the land is left as set-aside.
Despite this situation, South Gloucestershire still has populations of owls, including some rarer species that choose to spend their winters with us.
SHORT-EARED OWLS are an upland ground nesting species that breed, generally speaking, in the north of the UK. However, every winter some of these birds, together with winter migrants from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe visit the milder lowland areas of the South, and are often seen in this region.
The owls normally arrive around Oct/Nov and usually stay in the region all winter, usually by April or early May to travel back to their breeding grounds. Individual birds can turn up literally anywhere in our region, but a good place to look for them is the River Severn corridor, where the owls hunt for voles along the grassy, unmanaged flood plains.
The best known hot spot for wintering short-eared owls along the Severn is the area between the two Severn Bridges called Aust Wharf and along towards Avonmouth. This area is a superb site to watch short-eared owls from the road with very little chance of disturbing them.
Being a diurnal species, they are seen in broad daylight, with the afternoon towards dusk usually being the most active time. The number of owls along this site can vary from year to year, being influenced by weather conditions in their home areas and vole populations at Severnside, but at least a couple are seen on almost a daily basis most winters and sometimes as many as a dozen.
There is a great website called Severnside Birds run by Paul Bowerman that records daily sightings at Severnside and its good way of monitoring the birds at Aust.
Short-eared owls are also spotted each winter on higher ground in places like Marshfield and Tormarton and the surrounding area.
LONG- EARED OWLS have a reputation of being difficult to see and mostly quiet outside the breeding season. They are therefore very under-recorded in South Gloucestershire, despite the efforts of local birding sleuths and conservation volunteers, that attempt to locate both breeding birds and also winter roosts.
The most famous local winter roost was at Oldbury Power Station in the winter of 96/97, when up to seven birds were seen in hedgerow along a bridleway. Since then odd wintering birds have been recorded along the Severn. This area is highly recorded by dedicated bird watchers, and so it is not unlikely that there are other wintering birds each year in areas less frequented by birders. Indeed, I was once told of ‘lots of small owls’ flying out of the hedges along an old railway line near Iron Acton on New Year’s Day back in 2003. A survey the next winter produced nothing, but it is likely that these may have been long-eared owls.
To date, I have been unable to locate any breeding birds in South Gloucestershire, with the nearest, best know site being at Stock Hill Plantation on the Mendips, where there is a large tract of the long-eared preferred breeding habitat, conifer forest. Another site where wintering long-eared owls have been recorded in the past is at Warmley Forest Park. This site is now a Local Nature Reserve, and although small, is being managed for all wildlife, with good vole-rich grassland as well as lots of areas of scrub. With Overscourt Woods just down the road, it could turn up LEO’s any year. They have also been recorded at Inglestone Common.
Long-eared owls are much smaller than people realise, weighing less than 300gms and smaller than a barn owl, and with superb camouflage, it is no wonder they are so hard to find - and I have sore feet from walking along miles of hedgerow to prove it!
THE BARN OWL was on the South Gloucestershire Council Biodiversity Action Plan but the population in South Gloucestershire is never given much of a chance to increase and those we have are quite under-recorded.
With lots of land in private ownership, there is intensive management of many fields and those people that do have barn owls breeding on their land tend to keep it quiet and are sometimes unwilling to work with conservationist groups.
There seems to be an absolute obsession with putting up nest boxes by some local conservation groups. There must be over 300 in this relatively small region and many of them are empty. Yet nobody else seems be working to promote the creation of vole habitats - owls don’t eat nest boxes!
The management of land in South Gloucestershire is at time brutal - even when grass is left, a vole-rich field one month can be a cut to the soil ‘vole desert’ the next. Long grass is often seen as ‘neglect’, and with an obsession for tidiness, a demand to feed horses together with dog walkers complaining that their feet get wet in damp grass, there is an awful habit of ‘tidying’ the fields in this part of Bristol. This can have a big influence of the chances of barn owl populations increasing now and in the future.
Other factors affecting the spread of barn owls here include the huge rise in traffic in recent years, with fast roads becoming a killing ground for owls.
The use of rodenticides by modern owners of old farms that jump a mile when they see a mouse, and of course the huge demand for new housing which is eroding the green belt. Despite popular myth, South Gloucestershire Council are a very green council, with a brilliant team of Countryside Officers who are amazingly dedicated to wildlife conservation - it is government that is demanding more houses in the area, and the council is up against the wall with this issue.
There are established barn owl breeding sites in the countryside around Wick, Dyrham, Doynton, Pucklechurch, Siston, Overscourt, Sisiton Common, Iron Acton, Engine Common, Old Sodbury, Inglestone Common, Badminton, Wickwar, Charfield, Latteridge, Thornbury, Oldbury, Berkley, Keynsham, Hanham, Tortworth, Severnside and many other areas.
As far as having a chance to see them, Overscourt Woods at dusk is worth a visit (both sides of the road) and they are also regularly seen along the Iron Acton bypass, as well as the fields and lanes around Doynton.
In fact, any large field that has been left as set-aside and is vole-rich normally draws in barn owls at some time or another. In this part of the country, barn owls normally become active at the very end of the day, as the light fails, but after a very rainy June/July night, they will often hunt in the morning daylight when the rain has stopped, responding to the hungry calls of growing chicks that need feeding. With high volumes of traffic in the area, sightings near main roads are often made in the hours after midnight, when things quieten down a bit.
LITTLE OWLS are found a number of sites in South Gloucestershire, and in fact is the owl you are most likely to see in this area due to it’s diurnal habits, where it can often be seen sat on telegraph poles or in trees.
The region has quite a lot of suitable little owl habitat such as hedgerows, orchards, grazing meadows, smallholdings, allotments as well as lots of suitable nest sites like stables, old farm buildings and industrial buildings.
Through my talks, I meet hundreds of people, and I am often told stories by retired ladies of how ‘their’ little owl sits on the fence ‘by the apple tree’ and stares at them with those yellow eyes and intense frown!
When I have surveyed for little owls, there has hardly been an area of ‘likely little owl countryside’ where I have not had a response to my survey tapes. Generally, the young seem to set up new territories close to where they were hatched, so where the countryside is suitable, there are often connected territories - I call them enclaves.
The most likely places to look for them is in the areas by old ramshackle farm buildings, like old piggeries or stables and also any likely rotted out hollow trees.
Places that I regularly see little owl are Iron Acton, Latteridge, Engine Common, Old Sodbury, Chipping Sodbury, Doddington, Wick, Doynton, Dyrham, Badminton, Winterbourne, Frampton Cotterell, Westerleigh, Pucklechurch, Overscourt Woods, Siston Common, Thornbury, Aust Wharf, Severnside, Almondsbury, Oldbury, Tortworth, Tytherington, Tockington, Charfield, Wickwar, Ingleston Common, Frenchay and many other areas.
Sadly increasing development of old farm buildings in the area and changes to land use is having an impact on some established pairs.
TAWNY OWLS are quite common in South Gloucestershire, and are found in many woodlands and copses in the area, as well as in churchyards, parks and some large gardens.
Despite being our most numerous owl (19,000 prs) they are often the most difficult to see. Active at night, they can sometimes be seen on rooftops, telegraph poles or on fence posts along the woodland edge. During the day, a hunt amongst the tree canopy can sometime reveal a roosting tawny owl tucked up tight against the tree trunk, relying on it’s plumage to remain camouflaged.
Being highly territorial, tawnies often respond to an imitation hoot or whistle, and this can often bring a response and a sighting, but this method of contact should be used responsibly and definitely not between February and July, as it may disturb breeding pairs and their young.
As I’ve mentioned, tawny owls are found in may places in South Glos, including Overscourt Woods, Wapley Bushes LNR, Tytherington Hill Woods, Ridge Woods, Monks Pool LNR, Tortworth, Warmley Forest Park, Willsbridge Mill, Hanham Woods, Sheepcombe Brake, Badminton, Inglestone Common and many other sites.
I hope you’ve found the above information useful for seeing owls in the South Gloucestershire area. This web site is not designed to be a ‘birding site’ and there are much better resources for local birding information on my links pages, such as ‘The Birds of South Gloucestershire’ and ‘Severnside Birds’ These and others are excellent local web sites, kept up to date by dedicated birders.
Look for more information on British owls on Wild Owl Nature Diaries You Tube channel.