The RSPB's Tony Whitehead responds to reports of barn owl nests being blocked along the proposed route of HS2 ...

We have recently seen reports on social media about barn owl nests being blocked along the proposed route of HS2. If true, this is a concern for us.

But although it seems a little premature to do this before the line is given the green light, the nest blocking is not actually the issue – it's legal outside the breeding season, and actually a prudent move to discourage barn owls from nesting near the planned railway and the 250mph trains! And to be honest, nest availability is not believed to be the major limiting factor on their population – new barn owl boxes are easy enough to provide and many nature-friendly farmers already do just that.   

 The real problem here, as we have said before, is that barn owls need habitat rich in voles and other small mammals. Without this, they cannot feed themselves or their families – in which case it doesn’t matter how many nest sites are available.  

HS2Ltd have consistently failed to recognise this is their plans. The real reason barn owls might lose out here is not linked directly to blocking nest boxes along the line, but failure to provide the grasslands rich in prey in the places they will go.  

This was one of the key reasons that we took the hard decision to withdraw from the working group on barn owls in 2018, along with all the other advisory partners (the Barn Owl Trust and three local Wildlife Trusts). It’s the reason we wrote letters of complaint to HS2Ltd and then-Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling MP. Supportive MPs also asked questions in the House of Commons.  None of this got us anywhere. While we need new homes and infrastructure, in the current ecological emergency, all major infrastructure projects must provide more for nature than they take. In this case, that includes more grasslands where more barn owls might thrive, not just a re-arrangment of the places they can nest.