The owls that remained: why developers build natural habitats in our homes

In 18th century England, nailing an owl to the door of a barn probably repelled evil and protected the building from lightning.

Things are different today. A pair of barn owls at Bere Marsh Farm, Dorset, this winter enjoyed a £ 30,000 renovation of their 19th-century home, which was about to collapse. A new roof includes two holes for the owls to access their nest box in the roofs.

This is just one example. As we ascertain the extent of biodiversity loss, built-in habitats for wildlife are becoming points of sale for urban developments. Bat and bird boxes, living walls, green roofs, brown roofs (soil and debris that will naturally colonize with local plant species), beehives, insect hotels and even deer beetles – buried rotten logs, loved by deer beetle larvae that can grow up to 11 cm long – all are projected into buildings and landscaping.

A pair of barn owls at Bere Marsh Farm, Dorset (pictured above) benefited from a roof renovation with built-in access to their nest in the roof beams © Alan Wicks

After the restoration

After the restoration © Alan Wicks

“The workers built berths for the owls and covered the entrances with lead to prevent water damage to the woods,” says Elaine Spencer-White, manager of the 92-acre Dorset farm, bought by the Rural Restoration Trust last summer. “It was the most unusual roofing work the company has ever done.”

There was only a short time window when it was possible to rebuild the roof: between the fledgling owls in late September and the female returning to a pair with her mate, says Spencer-White. “The roof was finished by the end of November and Mrs. Owl returned to the barn on December 29, so the weather was perfect.”

The spending was “worth every penny,” says the charity, which has appealed to the public for donations. “People love to see owls flying along the bush fences, looking for prey. They fly so quietly and magnificently, “Spencer-White says.

In the last century, numbers of barn owls have declined in Britain. Habitat loss, increased street traffic and overhead wires are all factors, says the Barn Owl Trust. Enlightened peasants — those who did not nail them to doors — used to welcome these nocturnal hunters into their barns to control the rats and mice that would devour stored grain.

Cator Park, in Kidbrooke Village, south London, won the Sir David Attenborough Award for Improving Biodiversity

Cator Park, in Kidbrooke Village, south London, won the Sir David Attenborough Award for Improving Biodiversity © Nick Harrison

After a niche practice, leading homebuilders embarked with accommodating animals. In 2015, Barratt Developments PLC partnered with the RSPB to use bricks with a built-in nest space for swifts and in 2020 the Landscape Institute initiated the Sir David Attenborough Award for Improving Biodiversity.

The winner was 8-acre Cator Park at the heart of Berkeley Group’s Kidbrooke Village development in Greenwich, by HTA Design in collaboration with The London Wildlife Trust.

“We want to see nature put at the core of new developments so that new homes are good for humans and for animals,” says Sue Young, head of land use planning and environmental networks at the Wildlife Trust.

Imagine you live in a house where quick steps over the garden, where the school “runs,” is a walk next to a wild flowering meadow, buzzing bees; where bike paths pass by cane fringed ponds dancing with dragonflies and your garden is a hedgehog highway. This should become the norm, “she says.” Planners and landowners could make a positive contribution to addressing the twin threats of biodiversity and climate crises. “

Thomas Heatherwick's Eden Tower in Singapore has greenery built into the project, helping rare animal species return

Thomas Heatherwick’s Eden Tower in Singapore has greenery built into the project, helping rare animal species return © Hufton + Crow

Whether a number of ponds can compensate for habitats destroyed by the British government’s target of 300,000 new homes annually is a matter of debate.

Trying to address this, the Department of Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs over the past 10 years have developed “biodiversity
metrics ”by which environmental consultants can quantify the projected damage to natural habitats that will result from development. The newest and final version, Biodiversity Metric 3.0, will be launched this spring.

The idea is that any defect can be repaired by improving other habitats on site or on other land under the control of the developer. The goal is a general improvement in biodiversity, and a net gain of 10 percent will become a requirement for new developments under Defra’s environmental project, although some brownfield sites and major infrastructure projects will be exempted.

Controversially, “nationally significant infrastructure projects” are excepted. The most important biodiversity metric has also been criticized. “[The way the metric works] can be an incentive to create habitats that can be established quickly and with some moderate value – such as dense scrub – instead of something more ambitious such as valuable grassland or woodland, ”says Tristan Carlyle of Oxfordshire’s Ecology By Design council.

Habitat in London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park brought rare black redstarts (below) and striped bombers.

Creation of habitat in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park brought rare black redstarts (below) and striped bombers © AFP / Getty Images

Male Black redstart wintering on Seaton Hole Beach

© Alamy Stock Photo

Compensating for habitat loss is a global enigma. In 2009 the Singapore government implemented a landscape replacement policy “to ensure that the greenery lost on the ground is replaced vertically”. Thomas Heatherwick’s residential tower, Eden, is the newest high-profile example.

“The urban landscape is shifting to one where greenery is part of the design of tall buildings,” says architect Andrew Loke, director of BDP in Singapore. As a result, rare animal species return. “In the last 10-12 years [this policy] contributed to the return of the eastern multicolored hornbill, a species once considered locally extinct, “says Loke.

In London, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is now home to rare black-tailed deer and striped bombarded beetles thanks to extensive habitat creation.

In Sydney, new marble walls were built with built-in

In Sydney, new marble walls have been built with built-in “flower pots” that fill with tidal water, creating small rock pools.

In Manchester, the first new 100-year-old city park is being developed on a 2.6-hectare site in the city center. Part of the £ 1.4bn Mayfield regeneration, the Medlock River is freed from brick-lined banks and allowed to flood. Native flowers and trees will be planted.

In Sydney, new sea walls, which would otherwise be quite scarce habitat, are being built with built-in “flower pots” that fill with tidal water, creating small rocky ponds.

Encouraging biodiversity does not require conserving grand plans. “Individual homeowners can play a role even in a small space,” says Félicie Krikler, director of Assael Architects, which included bird and bat boxes, an insect hotel and a deer beetle in its London housing development, Quebec Way in Southwark. .

Plants on balconies or a renovated wild flower roof on a garden shed (such as one from wallbarn.com) or simply a piece of corrugated weight with a brick to attract slow-moving worms to a garden are all simple interventions. .

Walbarn’s wild flower roof on a garden shed is a simple technological innovation

Walbarn’s wild flower roof on a garden shed is a simple technological innovation

Replacing some conventional house bricks with those designed as homes for birds, bats or solitary bees is also possible. “Simple, low-tech solutions are often more efficient than more lightning-fast solutions,” says Krikler.

For those who have a large garden – and a bank balance sheet, the Barn Owl Trust can provide architectural drawings and CAD (computer aided design) files for a 4.5 m high natural tower, designed to last 100 years and provide nesting and roosting abundance of fauna.

Species include the barn owl, kestrel, owl, blue parrot, sparrow, ruby, swallow and marten; insects such as wintering butterflies and lice; bat species including horseshoe, bat and serotonin; toads, slow worms and lizards.

The first tower of the trust – made of stone and oak – was built in 2010 at a cost of £ 10,000. Expensive. But giving home to all those species is priceless.

The Barn Owl Trust sells plans for natural towers that attract a variety of species

The Barn Owl Trust sells plans for natural towers that attract a variety of © Barn Owl Trust

Joy of Twitchers

Locksmiths have caused a boom in bird watching. In 2020 the RSPB reported 198 per cent growth in bird feed sales according to 2019 figures. Welcoming our feathered friends is a symbiotic transaction. Our garden visitors get nuts. We are accelerating our well-being.

Architect Edwin Lutyens ’wild heritage lives on in a bird-feeder inspired by his garden seat Thakeham – just what all well-bred blue tit needs. £ 17.99; yougarden.com

Maybe they also appreciate classical architecture? The gothic arched bird feeder sticks to your window so you can watch garden birds up close through miniature arches. £ 18.99; rspb.org.uk

Bird Buddy is a multi-funded intelligent bird feeder that lives stream videos of visitors, photographs and uses online witchcraft to identify the species. £ 152; indiegogo.com

For a more intimate spy mission, invest in a Wi-Fi bird camera (pictured above) and watch your feathered friends hatch chicks. £ 149; green feathers.co.uk

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