The house sits on a slight rise, surrounded on two sides by fields of long grass backed by tall Breckland pines. On its other side is a cool, dark woodland with trees that creak in the wind and which merge into the shrubs and flowering trees of a garden. Behind the house is an enclosed garden, the red brick of the wall shrouded in large flowering shrubs of the border before meeting a neatly cropped grass lawn. The house itself is from a bygone era, half-timber with double gables at the front, painted olive green with white beams. The lower half is made of flint and red brick, the white window frames are arched, and four tall red bricked chimney stacks tower above the roof tiled in stripes of red and grey. The sky was a brilliant blue, with just the odd streak of white cloud. The emerald green grass undulates in the wind, rippling like waves. From this sea of green a roe deer looks up and stares in our direction, before resuming grazing. Ducks paddle across a large pond, its dark surface broken by large patches of weed and the reflection of trees around its edge.
It is to the open storage sheds to the side of the house that we head. Here there are tell-tale signs everywhere of the birds nesting in the large box placed on the wooden beams of the roof. White, splashes of poo cover everything. Over the beams, running down the stonewalls and over the garden machinery, boxes, bags and pallets below. Under the box itself there are a few pellets, dark masses of fur, bone and other indigestible parts of food. All signs that owls are present.
Our eyes adjust to the shadows of the outbuildings, and using a ladder (and under a special licence) we climb up to the box to check what is inside. Within the dark confines of the box, we pull out four very white, very fluffy barn owl chicks. The word cute does not do them justice. The white fluff of the downy feathers are delicate and soft. Surrounding dark eyes and a light bill, the distinctive heart shape of their facial disc is already apparent. The white fine feathers continue down their well-developed legs onto which we put a metal ring with a unique number. All processed the chicks are returned to their box in the rafters of the barn.
There is a second box within the outbuildings, accessible for the owls by a gap between the top of a partition wall and the rafters and for us via a locked door. Opening it we are hit by an almost physical wall of the ammonia-rich smell of barn owl poo. The owner knows that this is often where the female barn owl will roost, and in previous years has even raised a second brood.
In the interest of attempting to catch the adult bird associated with the nest we approach this second nest box with our net over the entrance. Nothing stirs as we quietly climb the ladder. Perhaps the box is empty. A very slight scraping sound suggests there may well be a bird in there. Once at the top and finally there is movement, with an adult bird bursting from the nest box and into our net. But it is not the female bird, but the male. With him safely removed from the net we climb back up once more, to have one final check of the box. It is experience that tells us to put the net back over the opening, and it pays off as out of the box comes the female!
So what an opportunity! In this one visit we have caught all six members of this family, and what is more the male is already ringed! He was ringed as a chick in 2009 in a nest in the next village up. A local boy. He’s not moved far, which is typical for barn owls, but he has lived more than double the average lifespan of a barn owl.
The information we have recorded today will be added to the national database underpinning the conservation work for owls. The barn owl is a UK conservation success story. Suffering from substantial declines in the past, the species was listed as Amber on the Birds of Conservation Concern. With focused projects from various organisations, including protection of nest sites and the erection and subsequent monitoring of nest boxes, has contributed to increases in the population to the extent the species is now listed as Green. However such conservation measures and monitoring remain important and key to sustaining and increasing barn owl numbers.
Finally, with both birds processed, weighed and measured, we return them both back to the box and, closing the door on the smelly room, leave them to rest for the remainder of the afternoon until dusk when both will return to the task of feeding those four fluffy owlets.