County Cork Barn Owl Population on the Up After Decades of Decline

A barn owl chick.

BirdWatch Ireland in partnership with Cork County Council and the National Parks and Wildlife Service have completed a survey of Barn Owls in the county, the results of which show that the fortunes of this iconic farmland bird appear to be changing, as Barn Owls were recorded in numbers not seen in the county in the past 50 years. 

The ghostly form of the Barn Owl, drifting silently over their hunting grounds in the dead of night, was a more common sight in the Irish countryside in generations past. The eerie screech of the Barn Owl, which gave rise to myths of the Banshee, was a familiar and welcomed sound in the early Spring. The presence of Barn Owls on the farm, and oftentimes in the farmyard, was embraced due to the preference of these highly efficient hunters for feeding on rats and mice, lending them the title of ‘the farmer’s friend’.

The Irish countryside is now very different, as farming practices have become more intensive, Barn Owls, like so many of our formerly widespread and common farmland birds, have suffered immensely. In Cork, Barn Owls had become an increasingly rare sight and their bloodcurdling screech had vanished from many parts of the county in recent decades. Previous surveys had shown that Barn Owls were widespread throughout the county in the late 1960s, but 20 years later their numbers had drastically reduced, and their range had contracted significantly. However, a survey carried out by BirdWatch Ireland during the summer of 2023, funded by Cork County Council, and supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service under the National Biodiversity Action Plan (2017-2021), provides cause for optimism with evidence that the fortunes of Barn Owls may be changing in County Cork. 

The survey enlisted the help of farmers and the general public who reported information on Barn Owls across the county, and also involved systematically checking a wide range of ruined structures, which are typical nesting sites for Barn Owl. The results were positive, with an increase in recorded Barn Owl breeding range of 132% in County Cork over the last 10 years, and an impressive increase of 480% since the 1980s when the Barn Owl population of Cork was at its lowest recorded extent. In total, 114 nest sites were found in the county, with the majority of these in ruined and abandoned buildings. 

Welcoming the positive findings, Mayor of the County of Cork, Cllr. Frank O’Flynn said 

It is heartening to see that the Barn Owl population in Cork County is now on the increase. The next phase of this work will see the continuation of a nest box project, with suitable sites identified throughout Cork County. It is hoped that annual monitoring of Barn Owl nests in Cork will continue, which will contribute to an understanding of the local population trajectories and the pressures Barn Owls face. We must work to safeguard the future of this wonderful species.

Alan McCarthy of BirdWatch Ireland, who coordinated the survey, said “The Barn Owl population increase in Cork has been truly incredible to witness. The reasons behind their recent population increases are not fully understood since many of the threats to Barn Owls such as habitat loss and rodenticide poisoning still remain. Changes in Barn Owl numbers may be related to the continued spread of introduced small mammal species throughout Cork, which Barn Owls feed on. It is therefore important that we do not become complacent and that we ensure to make the most of these short-term increases to try and secure the future of this iconic farmland bird in the county by taking measures that will benefit them and other wildlife in the long-term’. He continued “one of these measures is the provision of Barn Owl nest boxes, which is already showing its benefits, as 40% of recorded nests were in nest boxes in 2023”.

Donncha O’Teangana, an East Cork based BirdWatch Ireland volunteer who has headed up the East Cork Barn Owl Nest Box Project, highlighted the positivity shown by members of the public around Barn Owl conservation efforts in Cork, “We met so many farmers and landowners who, to a person, were extremely positive and engaging when it came to Barn Owl conservation. It is fantastic to see this engagement being rewarded with many Barn Owls now taking up residence in nest boxes we have installed in the last few years throughout East Cork. Fingers crossed this trend continues in the years to come”. 

Read the report on Barn Owl Populations in Cork at the link below.

You can help the survey and conservation efforts by reporting information on Barn Owls in the county by visiting 

The Barn Owl Survey and conservation initiatives in County Cork was coordinated by BirdWatch Ireland in partnership with Cork County Council with the support of the National Parks and Wildlife Service under the National Biodiversity Action Plan (2017-2021).