Boxing clever

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James Jeune joins volunteers from the Jersey Barn Own Conservation Network at a secret location in Trinity to help them create new nest boxes

VENTURE into the heart of the Trinity countryside and you might spot two brand-new wooden boxes nestled in trees just a few metres off the ground.

At first guess, you’d think they were the handiwork of an enthusiastic bird-watcher, or perhaps you would assume they were built by professionals from the Environment Department.

One thing is for certain – they didn’t get there by accident.

In fact, these meticulously crafted tree-top homes were installed by members of the Jersey Barn Owl Conservation Network, a volunteer group currently monitoring a portfolio of over 200 nest boxes around the Island.

Thanks to a wave of public donations, the group has continued its task of replacing hundreds of these ageing boxes, providing local barn owls with shelter for many years to come.

I was recently invited by the team’s chairman, JEP nature correspondent Bob Tompkins, to meet them at a top-secret location where I witnessed the installation process from start to finish.

Upon my arrival, I was greeted by Mark Peters, Colin Querée, Mark Blanchard and Lauren Rose from the BOCN’s ‘west team’, as well as Derek Noble, Ruth Urben and Jill Tompkins from the ‘east team’.

After the appropriate trees had been selected, Bob called me over and showed me one of the boxes, which was fully equipped with a landing board and mounting frame.

Made from over 40 individual parts, each nest is constructed from scratch using sheets of ethically sourced high-grade plywood before being treated with a long-lasting preservative. Each one costs nearly £200 altogether.

‘It has an entrance and inside the entrance is what we call a corridor,’ Bob explained.

‘That corridor is not really there for the adults – although it does stop rain getting in – because the chamber below is where they will roost and also where they will raise their young.

‘Once their young get to around four weeks of age, they start flexing their wings. If you had the old-style box, which has an entrance and nothing to stop them coming out, the risk is that they will tumble out, whereas with this system they have to be at least five weeks old before they have the strength to get up.’

Once the box is ready for its new inhabitants, the team secures it to the tree using beams placed between two branches.

Bob continued: ‘We try and select branches of a reasonably equal size so there is no movement because otherwise the bolts – or whatever we use to attach it to the tree – will sheer off.’

Ruth said: ‘Once the crossbeams are in position, the box will be tied to one end of a rope. Normally, Derek guides it up and Bob and I will haul it up at the other end. It tends to be slid up the ladder depending on the rope and the angles involved.’

Colin, who is a carpenter by trade, added: ‘We get all of the boxes fitted up and measured to spec. When we’re up in the tree, it’s different because we have to cut the wood to a certain size, depending on the openings.’

To avoid disturbing the owls during breeding season, the team uses a six-month window throughout the autumn and winter to replace the boxes.

Lauren said: ‘The weather can be a pain. I’ve done a few installations where there has been a sudden gust of wind so you just have to make sure the ladders are secure.’

The west team is the first to complete its task, albeit on a slightly smaller tree.

With both boxes now in place – and the volunteers enjoying some well-earned tea and biscuits – I took the opportunity to ask how they had become involved with the BOCN.

Ruth said: ‘I like owls, I like outside activities and I’m keen on supporting any endangered parts of the ecosystem so it just was perfect for me and I was quite happy to learn some more carpentry skills.’

Lauren explained that she had been introduced to the team in 2020.

‘I thought “wow, there are barn owls in Jersey” and I started coming out and giving a hand on a Saturday – and now any Saturday I’ve had, I’ve been out doing it with them.’

Mark Peters said: ‘It’s just something different to do at the weekend, to get involved with the Island and with the owls. It’s nice to be able to get out on a Saturday morning.’

Mark Blanchard said: ‘I saw an advert in the JEP looking for volunteers to help and I was coming up to retirement so I thought I’d come along. Almost ten years down the line, here we are.’

Derek added: ‘I’d always been interested in wildlife and owls and I don’t live far from Bob. I saw his van and I thought “I could do that” so I called to see if they wanted any help. Luckily, they had space on the east team so I fitted in and it’s been great.’

Colin said: ‘I used to have an aviary at home. Looking into retirement I just wanted to think about what I would be doing, and I’ve always loved the outdoor life.’

Because the birds are breeding slightly earlier than normal this year, the team has been focused on installing new boxes in different locations, in addition to replacing the old ones.

Anyone who would like to support the group’s work or help to fund the scheme can contact Bob Tompkins by emailing bobtompkins@live.co.uk or searching for the Jersey Barn Owl Conservation Network on Facebook.

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