WE’RE on the cusp of a whole new era in West Belfast, where the beautiful barn owl will once more be a resident.
And it’s thanks to the hard work of a group of activists for whom no obstacle is too big.
On Sunday they made their way on to the slopes of Black Mountain to put up the first barn owl nestbox – and when the job was done, the 13 volunteers let out a big cheer.
Because this really was a fantastic achievement – an example of what vision and sheer determination can do.
Black Mountain is prime barn owl habitat. But the problem is that there are absolutely no places for them to nest. They need open barns or old trees that have formed natural cavities in their trunks. Mountain champion Aaron Kelly says there are just two really old trees on the whole of the mountain, with most trees being around 40 years old. Like many things in life, it takes money to do a job right. And that’s where another volunteer, Paul Burns, stepped forward. He took part in a sponsored walk from Belfast to Knock in County Mayo on the Cursillo peace pilgrimage, sleeping in churches and community halls en route. His five-day trek raised £700.
The money was used to buy quality hardwood and then they tapped into the expertise of Gortnamona Men’s Shed who, with the help of Aaron’s father Sammy, built the boxes to a spec supplied by barn owl expert Paul Toner. The boxes were treated to withstand the mountain’s elements and will be still up there when many of our houses are falling down!
“We put two up on Sunday and when the first went up, there was a big cheer,” said Aaron.
“We chose this spot carefully with the help of Paul Toner. It’s a remote spot where no-one goes – even I won’t go back there now and I love travelling that whole mountain. But I know now that place is off-limits. I’ll maybe go back once a year to see if any birds are using it. And I’ll keep my distance and watch it with a scope.
“It’s why I want to create places on the mountain which aren’t accessible to people – nature needs isolation.”
Aaron recently found a barn owl pellet on the mountain – and he’s seen a couple of them over the years, but only during the winter. Until now, they haven’t been able to nest there.
He and his team of volunteers hope to have all 14 boxes up before Christmas. “Everything we do is about helping the habit for the future – it’s all a long-term vision,” Aaron said.
“This is the time of year when the chicks will disperse from their nests from places like Lough Neagh and find new territories. When they hit Black Mountain, it’s prime habitat but it’s lacking what they need to raise their own chicks in.
“I guarantee that every year young barn owls fly across the tree line of Black Mountain but they have to move. Now they’ll find 14 great homes.”
If the barn owls – sréachóg reilige in Irish – take up the offer, Aaron hopes to livestream them with a tiny camera inside the nestbox. “Imagine watching barn owls on our mountain raising chicks. It would be incredible,” he said.
"There are owl boxes up at Mullaghglass and at Slievenacloy – so we hope that the whole of the Belfast Hills will be a hotspot for them."
Dúlra remembers a barn owl swooping down over the streetlight when he was playing as a kid in Ramoan Gardens. With Aaron’s vision and the energy of his band of Black Mountain volunteers, that could once again be a sight that many city residents can enjoy.
When the work is done and the 14 boxes are up, then the volunteers can sit back and wait for spring. With the success of the Lough Neagh barn owl scheme, there will doubtless be plenty of young barn owls scanning our hills for new nesting territories to raise their own families. And to be able to watch the Black Mountain barn owl nestbox on livestream, well, that would be box office!
•If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.