By Linda McKee
Barn owls are hurtling towards extinction in Northern Ireland, with numbers plummeting to as low as 45 pairs.
It's thought that the species has declined by around 80% in the last 40 years - and intensive farming and rat poison are the culprits.
Farmers in the Lough Neagh wetlands are now being urged to switch from rat poison to traps and cats in a bid to save the handful of owls that still make their homes in the area.
Seamus Burns of Lough Neagh Partnership says barn owls once thrived in places where unimproved rough grassy areas harboured small animals such as woodmice and pigmy shrews.
But with farmers specialising in arable, milk, beef or sheep grazing, these areas are disappearing and there are fewer patches where grain would attract mice.
"The lack of food in the open countryside leads barn owls to venture in and around farm buildings where mice might build up due to grain and other foodstuff being stored there," Seamus said.
"Barn owls are efficient hunters and will take several mice per night, thereby performing a natural duty and helping to keep the numbers of unwanted rodents down to a minimum.
"Unfortunately though, many farmers and landowners today hire specialist pest control companies to keep the population of rodents down around farms. This results in extensive use of poison (known as rodenticide) across the countryside.
" Although the poison is perfectly legal and is administered and managed to guidelines, it has devastating effects for barn owls and could in theory be one of the most important reasons for the low level of barn owls in Northern Ireland today.
"Barn owls hunt and kill live prey, and swallow that prey whole. It is their habit of swallowing whole prey that can kill them.
"If their prey has itself eaten poison, the barn owl will suffer from secondary poisoning and after eating several mice in this condition over a short period of time, the result is inevitable death."
The Partnership has just produced a biodiversity action plan aimed at protecting the wildlife in Lough Neagh's wetlands.
Seamus said farmers are not responsible for the decline of barn owls- it is just that many people may not be aware of the full extent of the damage caused by rodenticides.