William Powell Country

From Summer to Autumn at Vine House Farm – The Rise of the Barn Owl

Rural Matters

Article written by 16 October 2014

On the whole it has been a very wet August but here in the South Lincolnshire Fens we have escaped the downpours that most parts of the country have had. I know in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire north of Boston some places had 5 or even 6 inches of rain in a weekend while here we had a total of 2 1/4 inches for August.

Harvest started early and we have all the wheat harvested in August which is quite unusual. Our light land has yielded very well and overall we should average over 4 tons /acre which is very good but over recent months prices have come down so we needed that good yield to make any profit on the wheat.

It is not just wheat prices that have come down, the price of every crop seems to have come down, barley, sugar beet, hay, milk, bird seed and potatoes which are the difficult one. We sell wheat on a spec that is adhered to but we also sell potatoes on a spec but when they get to the packhouse and there are too many potatoes about they can claim they are bruised, are too dull or the shape is good enough and when they go to the processor who will make chips of them he can also say they are bruised or the dry matter is too low and they could be rejected. It could even be that the merchant tells you that the potatoes are poor quality and wants some money off the deal when there is no complaint at all. Such is life and of course it is our job to try and deal with trustworthy people and is some cases I still do deal with firms who used to deal with my father or my father in law.

On the whole it is an early season but not everything has ripened early, Victoria plums and hazel nuts were not ready for picking any earlier than normal. We will however be able to start storing potatoes earlier than usual as they are senescing early.

It is no fun picking potatoes in November as by then the soil is wet and sticky so hopefully we will be finished well before November.

Vine House Farm has reached the finals of the Farmers Guardian farms competition, the Farmers Guardian is a national newspaper and it is running a competition to find the best farmer in various catagories, we have entered the renewable energy section as I thought we have more than average of renewable and re-useable energy projects going on here. We have of course wind and solar power but also some more unusual sources of heat such as using the heat from our 1000 ton potato refrigerated store to heat one of our bird food buildings, and using the waste oil from our tractors to heat another bird seed building. I have had a biomass boiler since 1980 and have calculated that if I hadn’t had this I would have used ¼ million litres of fuel to heat my house, office, museums and now the shop. We also save water from our farm buildings for our toilets and farm sprayer.

Wildlife on the farm

The most amazing wildlife spectacle on the farm is how well the Barn Owls are breeding. It is a spectacle that most of you are not able to observe as they are doing so well they can find all of their food during the night and so do not need to fly during the day, also Barn Owls nest on private land and you should have a licence to visit a Barn Owl nest as they are a specially protected bird.

One of the best sights in the countryside is to see a Barn Owl hunting but that is not good news for the Barn Owl as he is out in the day only because he could not find enough food the night before. Barn Owls favourite food is the field or bank vole, voles are cyclic and 2014 happens to be a bumper year for voles. South Lincolnshire is probably the best area for Barn Owls in the UK, partly because it is one of the driest areas in the UK. Barn Owls hunt by hearing as well as by sight and they cannot hunt successfully when it is raining because the rain drops hide the rustling of the voles in the grass. On rainy nights they will go into farm buildings in search of mice so we leave a hole for Barn Owls to enter our grain stores

This year we have 13 pairs of Barn Owls nesting on the farm and they will rear an average of more than 5 chicks per pair. In the last 30 years 2007 was the next best year and they reared an average of 4 chicks per pair. There were two second broods that year rearing 2 each but this year the 5 pairs of Owls that have chosen to have a second brood are rearing from 3 to 6 chicks per pair.

The large population of voles appears to be in response to the extremely low population of them over the winter of 2012/3. The vole population was devastated by all the rain in the summer of 2012, that in turn devastated the Barn Owl population and experts were saying that the Barn Owl population over many parts of England would never recover from that all time low of 2013. I don’t know what conditions are like over the rest of the UK but certainly the Barn Owl population in Lincolnshire seems to be fully recovered.

I was a bit perplexed as to why the Tree Sparrows finished nesting slightly earlier than usual but of course it is an early season, most plants are maturing earlier than normal, the insects gear themselves to the plants and so they have matured early and that of course is why the Tree Sparrows have finished nesting slightly earlier than usual. They have not done as well as normal either but at 8.3 nestlings reared per box installed should have increased the number of Tree Sparrows locally. That is what one would have thought but young Tree Sparrows do not hang around, both sexes vacate their natal home so my colony must rely on Tree Sparrows that have been reared elsewhere to keep their numbers up. I know that because when I put some nets up I don’t catch any birds that I have caught as nestlings.

I know some of you who will be reading this newsletter are members of the Countryside Restoration Trust, Vine House Farm will be having a small stand at their open day at Lark Rise Farm, Barton near Cambridge on the 28th September. I will be taking bird seed to the day which will be priced at our shop prices. I will also be attending the National Hedgelaying competition at Hough on the Hill near Grantham with a stall on Saturday 25th October if anybody will be going there.


Nicholas Watts – Nicholas is the owner of Vine House Farm and has been running the farm since 1966. Nicholas is passionate about wildlife and in1982 he decided to do a breeding bird survey on the farm and has done so every year sin.. Read more.

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