Articles Interviews

Interview with an Influencer – Colin Shawyer, leader in barn owl and raptor conservation

colin shawyer barn owl raptor

As part of Inside Ecology’s ‘Interview with an Influencer’ series, we interview Colin Shawyer (MUniv, AUH, CBiol, FRSB, FCIEEM) – biologist and professional ecologist, widely recognised for his influential work on the study and conservation of owls and raptors…

colin shawyer barn owl raptor

©Colin Shawyer

How did you first become interested in wildlife and how did your career progress?

My working life began in 1967 as a research biochemist working on human cardiovascular disease and this continued for almost 20 years. However, my love of nature and particularly birds began at an early age and like many of my generation, I was always out and about in the countryside searching for birds’ nests and scrubbing around in the ditches for insects and frogs. In those days, the small water-filled ditch of rushes in front of our house and the 100 foot laurel hedge and apple orchard in our garden, provided safe nesting sites for numerable species from reed buntings, bullfinches to tree sparrows, and the eves of our bungalow was home to about twenty pairs of house sparrow, most years. It’s hard to appreciate that many of the birds in our garden at that time are today red-listed as species for which there is serious conservation concern in the UK. Not surprising perhaps that in spite of my biochemist credentials, but with an underlying love of nature and the countryside, I qualified as an applied biologist.

How did you become interested in barn owls and when did you first become aware that they were declining?

After my early interest, mainly in garden and woodland birds, barn owls came into my world during my teens. I would sometimes come across their eggs or young in the hay barns on the nearby farm at the Oaklands Agricultural College and around my home parish of Smallford, near St Albans. These exciting days exploring the countryside gave way in the mid 1960’s to my other passion, which was bicycle racing, something my father was exceptionally good at and at which later in his life became a British champion. Although I spent much of my weekdays training for races, often covering 60 miles most evenings after work, my interest in birds still remained an important interest and for this reason many of my training runs were designed around the lanes and by-roads of my county where the chances of seeing something special was always on offer. My interest in barn owls was rekindled in the late 1970’s not because I was seeing them around at dusk as I was returning from a training run, but rather the opposite. It didn’t take long for me to discover that they were no longer present at the breeding sites that they had once been so faithful to.

In a quest to understand more I gave my support to a barn owl survey in Hertfordshire being run by one of my work colleagues, the results of which subsequently became part of the Hertfordshire Bird Atlas. It wasn’t until a few years later after I had become much more involved in barn owls that I came to realise that in Hertfordshire, between 1932 and 1985, the species had experienced a 95% decline in its breeding population, confirming my worst fears a few years earlier. This fired me up to know more; was this decline happening nationwide and what were the causes?

colin shawyer barn owl raptor

©Colin Shawyer

When did your research into barn owls begin in earnest?

An unexpected opportunity came in 1981 when I attended my first AGM of the Hawk Trust at the Zoological Society of London. Tony Warburton had been invited as its guest speaker, having only recently had his authoritative monograph on the barn owl, published. He called desperately for the need of a barn owl survey of Britain and Ireland and in front of a rather large audience, I stuck my hand up and volunteered to take this on. Rather naively as it turned out since it was to prove an all-consuming five-year challenge for me and my wife, Val at a time when our second child had only just been born.

As a volunteer of the Trust in 1981, I began the survey, which in the event proved a mammoth and highly challenging task. Some days we received over a 100 barn owl records in the post (no emails in those days) which we painstakingly needed to check, analyse and record. It was a tough three years during which time, me, my wife and a friend, validated and then carefully analysed many thousands of records, each one into 24 individual fields of information. These were entered into one of the earliest of home computers, the Sinclair QL, now a valuable relic – if only we hadn’t decided to take it to the local tip a few years ago!

colin shawyer barn owl raptor

©Colin Shawyer

What challenges did you face when undertaking this initial research and what was a significant outcome?

The survey was certainly not all plain sailing, with the Nature Conservancy Council at the time insisting that it was they who were responsible for initiating breeding bird surveys of this type, through the funding they would normally expect to provide to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).  Nevertheless I stuck to the task and in 1987 the survey report, which was originally expected to be a typewritten report, became a book, The Barn Owl in the British Isles its Past Present and Future forwarded by Sir David Attenborough. The book was launched to a large audience by Gerald Durrell at the Country Landowners Association in London and I was keen to see the results and recommendations taken forward rather than gathering dust on someone’s bookshelf, which is so often the case with reports of this kind. As well as providing details and analyses of the survey findings county by county, the book called for further research into the barn owl in order to provide further understanding about the factors affecting its long-term decline and, most importantly, it offered a conservation strategy aimed at addressing these factors.

Soon after the start of the survey and through my work as a biochemist working amongst other things on anticoagulants, which are used for the thinning of blood in humans, I was becoming aware of the potential of these compounds to affect barn owls since these were the self-same chemicals being used to control rats, mice, and other small mammals – the main constituent of the barn owl’s diet. My concern was translated into action when at the start of the barn owl survey in 1981, I wrote a paper on the effects of these anticoagulant rodenticides on birds of prey. This I undertook to help the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology gain support from the then Nature Conservancy Council, to agree funding to enable anticoagulant rodenticides to be incorporated along with DDT and others, into the Predatory Birds Monitoring Scheme (PBMS). This review proved its worth and in 1981 barn owl anticoagulant residue analysis was incorporated into the Scheme. Today, 35 years later, anticoagulants remain an important part of the PBMS not only of barn owls but other birds of prey such as red kites and kestrels.

©Colin Shawyer

When did you make the career change from biochemistry to becoming Director of the Hawk and Owl Trust?

After publication of the survey in 1987, the Hawk Trust offered me the post as its first Director and my working life saw a sudden change from biochemist to that of raptor ecologist and closer to my biological routes and expertise.

What did you implement in your new role?

During my first year as Director of the Hawk Trust in 1987 I was able to realise my own, as well as the Trust’s ambition, to set up a long-term barn owl project, which could take the recommendations of the barn owl survey forward. I founded the Barn Owl Conservation Network (BOCN) project and having received a surprising and very generous donation at the survey’s launch in 1988, the Trust was able to appoint Dr Mark Brazil as the first BOCN Coordinator of conservation and research for Britain and Ireland. Over the following 20 years, Mark was followed by three other Coordinators, the late Paul Johnson, Sue Dewar and Jason Ball with the BOCN being supported by the Sheepdrove Trust in more recent years. Today the BOCN has gone full circle and as its Founder, I am currently co-ordinating this once again but in a voluntary capacity.

Aside from my barn owl involvement in the Trust, my role as its Director, primarily of conservation and research was to design and help accomplish numerous research projects on birds of prey including, long-eared owls, goshawks, harriers, peregrines and kestrels. By the mid 1990’s I was able to see the organisation (now the Hawk and Owl Trust) rise to employ over six full time staff. During this time I was delighted to be able to supervise PhD studentships alongside Professor Ian Newton, Professor Bill Sutherland and Dr John Flowerdew, world experts on raptors and small mammals respectively.

colin shawyer barn owl raptor

©Colin Shawyer

How did you help take barn owl conservation forward?

Having set out the barn owl research and conservation strategy in 1988, I was able to help incorporate this in the RSPB and JNCC’s UK Action Plan for this species. I subsequently assisted the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in its work investigating the effects of rodenticides, undertook a research commission from the Department of Transport in 1993 to investigate the impact of roads on barn owls and in 1994 co-supervised a joint project between the Hawk and Owl Trust and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to undertake a repeat barn owl survey, twelve years on from that which I undertook in the early 1980’s. During this time and as part of the BOCN project I wrote much of the barn owl conservation advisory literature including The Barn Owl the Farmers Friend Needs a Helping Hand, Boxes Baskets and Platforms and numerous leaflets which provided advice on subject matters such as habitat requirements, establishment and management, artificial nest sites including owl towers and planning advice. In 1994 and 1998 I wrote two barn owl books for publishers, Hamlyn and Arlequin Press, both as part of their series of bird monographs.

What were the priority measures implemented to aid the barn owl’s recovery?

In recognition that the survey findings had demonstrated that Britain’s barn owl breeding population had by the 1980’s become highly fragmented, the overarching strategy of the BOCN project was directed toward the countrywide re-establishment of habitat connectivity, farm to farm and county to county. Re-connecting habitat ‘islands’ was a new concept for species conservation at this time with most directing their attention to the establishment of individual reserves.

Thirty-five years after the BOCN was founded and along with the Environment Agency (formerly National Rivers Authority) and the internal drainage boards of eastern and southern England, rough-grassland habitat alongside rivers and smaller watercourses has been developed to achieve a countrywide habitat network of about 3,000 km. This network of grassland corridors has also been supplemented by the field margins provided as part of Government agri-environment schemes all of which has culminated in a vast matrix of habitat networks which now criss-cross much of England and on which artificial nest sites have been provided. I have always tried to lead by example and having personally installed 3,000 nest boxes over the last 30 years in counties from Yorkshire to Sussex – I am pleased to report that 2,000 are now occupied most years by barn owls.

Nestboxes and owl towers are now estimated to provide the breeding sites for 75% of the British barn owl population. This is reflected in the concerted actions taken by the BOCN teams and the conservation successes that have been achieved. As a result of improvements to rough-grassland habitat and the countrywide restoration of habitat connectivity, the barn owl population, once thought to be heading for possible extinction, has doubled and possibly trebled during the last 30 years to an estimated 9,000 – 12,000 pairs. Largely as a result of the conservation success that have been achieved during this time the species was upgraded in 2015 from the ‘amber’ to ‘green’ list in Birds of Conservation Concern in the UK.

colin shawyer barn owl raptor

Owl tower ©Colin Shawyer

In addition to the Hawk and Owl Trust, what other organisations have you been involved with?

During the 1990’s and indeed after this, I have been delighted to work for and alongside the BTO, and be member of their Research and Surveys Committee. I have also served on a number of other committees including the Government’s Raptor Working Group and it was at this time when I and two colleagues undertook Government commissioned research into the impact of raptor predation on racing pigeons.

What other projects or accomplishments have been significant in your career to date?

As well as undertaking a seven-day lecture tour of the Republic of Ireland and speaking widely elsewhere on the subject of raptors, I have been very fortunate indeed to receive a number of awards for my research and conservation work mostly with barn owls. In 1987 I received the RSPB’s Birds and Countryside Award for the Most Positive Contribution Overall to the Conservation of Wild Birds (barn owls) and the Countryside. In 1990 I was awarded an honorary degree of Master of the Open University, the Ford British Conservation Award in 1992 for the Creative Conservation of Raptors and Owls and became a ‘runner up’ in the Ford European Conservation Awards which was held in the President’s palace, Lisbon later that year. Most recently I was presented with the Global Owl Special Achievement Award in Minnesota USA for Leadership of the Barn Owl Conservation Network and Excellence in the Science and Restoration of the Owls of Britain and Ireland, an award I was particularly honoured to receive from my contemporaries. The greatest tributes, however, have not been the trophies themselves, three of which are works of art in their own right, but the written and verbal attributes which accompanied them. Not least of all has been the hand-written letter of congratulations I recently received from Sir David Attenborough for my work with barn owls, which was entirely unexpected and which I value above all else.

©Colin Shawyer

What significant changes have you seen over the span of your career?

As a raptor biologist the biggest change I have seen during my time has been the recovery in the populations of almost all of our nineteen regularly occurring breeding birds of prey. The reintroduction of the sea eagle and red kite has contributed quite outstandingly to the recovery in numbers of these two species and the provision of artificial nest structures for others such as peregrines and osprey has achieved great advances. All this has been aided by the banning of toxic chemicals used in agriculture such as DDT and dieldrin in the mid 1990’s which for many of these bird-eating raptors at least, recovery of their populations has taken many decades. I have always felt proud that it was our own scientists in England who discovered the disastrous effects these chemicals were having on birds of prey, such as sparrowhawk and peregrine.

Following on from the Hawk and Owl Trust, what did you go on to next?

In 1999, I retired from the Trust, joined as a member of the IEEM (now CIEEM) and set up an ecological consultancy, the Wildlife Conservation Partnership (WCP). This allowed me not only to continue with my conservation work with owls and kestrels in partnership with others such as the Environment Agency, Internal Drainage Boards, Crown Estates, Wildlife Trusts, enthusiastic landowners and farmers, but also to perform my professional work as an ecologist. Throughout this time I have been actively involved in the one-to-one training of ecologists on survey techniques for barn owls and other raptors, enabling me to provide references for their Natural England Class licences. As a BTO bird ringing trainer I am enjoying passing on my knowledge and assisting others to achieve the necessary qualification for their ringing permits and Schedule 1 Disturbance Licences.

In 2000 one of my first consignments as an ecologist brought me back into the folds of the BTO developing and undertaking their Barn Owl Monitoring Programme (BOMP). I worked on this project for the BTO for ten years, alongside my other ecological tasks, during which time I was granted fellowship of both the CIEEM and the Institute of Biology (now Royal Society of Biology).

Although I feel I can now safely leave the barn owl in fine fettle, my work as an ecologist dealing with both small and major infrastructure schemes, aims to ensure the hard work of the BOCN colleagues in Britain and Ireland can maintain its successes and that the impact of these new developments are clearly understood and adequately mitigated or compensated for. In order to assist this process I, with the help of colleagues in the BTO and Natural England, developed for the CIEEM, best practice survey methodology for barn owls. Not only was this designed for the purpose of informing an Environmental Impact Assessment or Environmental Statement, but to achieve the delivery of robust mitigation strategies for the species and the habitats in question.

colin shawyer barn owl raptor

©Colin Shawyer

What words of advice can you offer to those involved in ecology / conservation of species?

Protectionist campaigns can be valuable in focussing our attention on an issue of concern. However, if these seek to ignore or misrepresent the underlying science and seek to persuade others, by providing misleading information in an attempt to justify their cause, they can do a grave disservice to the issue they are seeking to address. As an Expert Witness I have occasionally been called to defend a mitigation strategy. One of these concerned peregrine falcons which were likely to be displaced from their traditional nest site by development. Although the mitigation strategy I had developed was based on background knowledge of the species and its habitat needs, the strategy was to be opposed at Public Enquiry. However, just before the enquiry began, the resident peregrines moved into and bred at the new sites I had created and whilst I was called to stand witness for the defence of my mitigation action there was, in the event, nothing to answer for on the day of reckoning. Had I not undertaken mitigation at this site in advance, those who were campaigning against the methods I had used would have prevented this taking place, and peregrines would have been lost permanently from the site. Today, two pairs of peregrines are breeding in artificial nest ledges at this site just 250 m apart. These are now believed to be the closest nesting pairs in Britain.

Following on from this I am keen to ensure that in the face of new and often major developments, particularly those concerning road and rail, ecologists understand that the maintenance or enhancement of a breeding population is our priority and that to achieve this as part of a mitigation strategy, we often need to understand the population dynamics in the species we are dealing with. Barn owls provide one such model. It is for example very distressing to see an animal lying dead on the road or alongside a railway line and we should try where possible to reduce these unnatural forms of death, but this should not be at the expense of ignoring or giving less thought to how we might maintain or enhance the breeding population itself. Indeed as a population grows in size, mortality increases likewise and for some species such as barn owls, otters and badgers that fall victim to collision with traffic, rather than mortality being an indicator of decline can be a reflection, albeit unfortunate one, of population increase in the species concerned.

Another concern arises from the apparent lack of ecological continuity that often seems to arise in many infrastructure projects today, so often this is lost as different organisations or different individuals are appointed along the way. Not only can this make for unnecessarily high project costs for the client as a result of ecological works being unnecessarily repeated, but can result in the final deliverable such as the Environmental Statement or the mitigation strategy being compromised, because one hand is unaware of what the other hand has achieved in the past. I have discussed this with ecologist colleagues on a number of occasions and most are agreed that this lack of continuity from project inception through to its completion and implementation of the mitigation strategy, is perhaps one of the most significant ecological failings involving development schemes today.

I am very fortunate because two large infrastructure projects that I am working on today are enabling me to see these through from their inception many years ago to the present, involving delivery of their mitigation strategy and perhaps also their eventual implementation.

Are you currently involved in any research projects?

Aside from the two large infrastructure projects and other smaller development projects, in 2014 I was asked by the Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use (CRRU) to undertake one of two wildlife surveillance projects as part of their Rodenticide Stewardship Regime. This campaign, which is underpinned by robust science, requires me to monitor the breeding performance of barn owls in England, this species being chosen as the sentinel species for this evaluation. The research which is being undertaken annually, in partnership with the University of Reading, is designed to help provide the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) with information about the wildlife effects of second generation anticoagulant rodenticides. This follows the recent introduction of a rodenticide stewardship programme, required by Government to help regulate the use of these compounds in Britain and prevent unnecessary levels of wildlife contamination. I have recently been appointed as a technical adviser to the CRRU Task Force UK and once again I am back to being involved in a subject which I first gave my attention to in 1981.

Images provided by Colin Shawyer

Further Information: Colin Shawyer is a raptor biologist and professional ecologist specialising in birds, mainly birds of prey and has published widely on this subject. He is a Fellow of both the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and Royal Society of Biology.  Colin was Director of the Hawk and Owl Trust between 1988 and 1998. Colin has served on the Government’s Raptor Working Group and Barn Owl Working Group, Pesticides Safety Directorate and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Research and Surveys Committee. He has undertaken and published research studies for Government and its Agencies, including the Highways Agency and Environment Agency and undertaken and co-­directed national barn owl surveys in the mid 1980’s and 1990’s. He undertook work for the British Trust for Ornithology between 2000 and 2010 developing and undertaking its Barn Owl Monitoring Programme and in 1988 founded the Barn Owl Conservation Network (BOCN) and is BOCN Coordinator for UK and Ireland. Further information regarding his work via the Wildlife Conservation Partnership can be found HERE.