Vulnerable barn owls return to nesting on Finnebrogue Estate in Downpatrick 

Vulnerable barn owls return to nesting on Finnebrogue Estate in Downpatrick

Northern Ireland’s vulnerable barn owls population have been given a much-needed boost with the discovery of a new nest site at Finnebrogue Estate in Co. Down.  


There are fewer than 30 breeding pairs estimated to be left in Northern Ireland and Ulster Wildlife is asking landowners to report barn owl sightings.


Finnebrogue Estate, sister to the Better Naked and Finnebrogue brands, is nestled along the banks of the River Quoile in Downpatrick with an expanse of 600 acres of mixed farm land with half given over to the environment.


In January 2021, 15 bird boxes were placed around the farm in the hope of attracting breeding barn owls over the winter, and following the use of thermal imaging in April, the estate manager discovered its first pair of breeding barn owls nesting in one of the boxes.


Commenting on the exciting find, Mark Sandford, Finnebrogue Farm manager said:


“Having only placed nesting boxes up in 2021, it took no time for a barn owl pair to settle. This is testament to our land management, meaning there is ample food resources available for them.


“Barn owl diet consists of mainly wood mice, pygmy shrews and young rats, which in turn are attracted to the Estate’s mature woodland and areas of grass scrubland which regularly throw out grain to encourage a good population of rodents.


“We hope that these barn owls will keep coming back year after year and continue to add vital numbers to our small and vulnerable Northern Irish population.”


Mark is receiving support from Ulster Wildlife through their barn owl conservation work. Katy Bell, Senior Conservation Officer, explains why this pair is so important:


“2021 has been a difficult year for our already struggling barn owl population. The wet and extremely hot weather meant that most of our barn owl nest sites failed, so we were thrilled to hear this news. Luckily, this pair couldn’t have chosen a more sympathetic farm to set up home with wild bird cover, meadows and mature hedgerows providing plentiful foraging habitat and food for barn owls to thrive.


“With fewer than 30 breeding pairs of barn owls estimated to be left in Northern Ireland, farmers and landowners play a key role in securing their future. By working together, we can help protect precious nest sites, monitor these beautiful birds, and provide help and advice on owl-friendly farming.”


The chicks were kindly ringed by David Galbraith, a licenced volunteer ringer from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). This will generate important information on the birds’ survival, productivity and movement – and is non-invasive as the birds remain sleepy during the process.


The ringing of the chicks at Finnebrogue Estate made an appearance in the new BBC series, Chronicles of Strangford on 07 February. You can watch it on BBC Iplayer / episode 4 on Summer).


Barn owls are legally protected and can be sensitive to disturbance, so if you find a nest site, please leave it alone and get in touch with Ulster Wildlife. Tell-tale signs to look for include distinctive whitewash droppings, feathers and regurgitated pellets of bones and fur. Any information provided is strictly confidential.




If you think your land is suitable for a man-made nesting box or you would like advice on owl-friendly farming contact Katy Bell at Ulster Wildlife on 07816 065 736 or email You can also visit