New surveys are underway in the South West of England to study long eared owl populations.

It's been a decade since the UK’s rarest breeding owl species were last studied in this area and their numbers are thought to have declined significantly in the past century. Now, Forestry England and the Hawk and Owl Trust are carrying out a major survey of the birds across Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall thanks to Forest Holidays' Conservation Fund.

In a repeat of a 2009 survey, the project aims to give land managers a better understanding of the long eared owl’s distribution, as well as allowing experts to monitor other nocturnal birds. This improved knowledge will inform future site management and provide an opportunity to engage and educate the public.

Long eared owls are the UK’s rarest breeding owl and are very under-studied and under-recorded. The survey technique involves identifying potential nesting areas in each location, playing out long eared owl calls - both male and female - over loud speakers for a minute, then listening in silence for a further minute for their call backs.

So far, the survey has recorded winter calling at three sites, but suitable habitat was recorded at many more. All locations will be revisited during the summer to search for signs of breeding success. Long-eared owlets are noisy and far easier to find than adults.

Peter Devenport, ecologist, Forestry England said: “A huge part of Forestry England’s work in looking after the nation’s public forests is managing them sensitively for the wildlife that depends on them.

"Regular surveys help us build a better understanding of the species living in our forests and, since it’s ten years since our last comprehensive long eared owl survey in this area, it’s important to repeat the exercise to see how populations and habitats might have changed.

"This year, we’re also celebrating 100 years of forestry, so it feels like the perfect time for this work. We’ve collaborated with the Hawk and Owl Trust for many years, because partnering with other expert organisations means we can be sure that we’re managing valuable habitats in the best way.”

Chris Sperring, Hawk and Owl Trust, said: “Long eared owls are highly elusive and we don’t know as much about them as we’d like. They are notoriously difficult to survey, which isn’t helped by the remote nature of the areas they inhabit.

"But Forestry England sites provide ideal habitat for them and, by identifying where birds are, we can advise on how best to protect and conserve them.

"As well as supporting the species itself, it’s vital to help raise awareness and engage the public whenever possible."