Operation SWORD – Save Wild Owls from Road Deaths

The Hawk and Owl Trust pilots Operation SWORD to reduce barn owl and other wild owl road casualties

Tawny Owl Road Casualty ©Nicholas Gates
Tawny Owl Road Casualty © Nicholas Gates

The Hawk and Owl Trust has launched a research project in Norfolk called Operation SWORD (Save Wild Owls from Road Deaths). Its aim is to help reduce the number of wild owls, particularly barn owls, killed by vehicles on the county’s roads.

It is asking people to help by looking out for and reporting any owl or other bird of prey casualties on roadsides.

The initial pilot project involves locating ‘blackspots’ where the number of owls being struck is particularly high, then installing some high tech sensors to see if they help to reduce the problem. The sensors, which have been used in trials in Sweden, react to headlights by emitting a noise that deflects wildlife away from the road.

“We’ve started by looking for the blackspots where road casualties occur regularly,” explained Nigel Middleton, the Trust’s conservation officer for East Anglia. “Then we plan to install deflectors that, when activated by headlights, release one of five different sounds, randomly. We hope the noise will alert owls or other birds of prey that could be at risk from the traffic as they hunt along the verges. We’ll monitor progress to identify any increase or reduction in owl mortality as a result.

“Where the deflectors are being trialled on moose in Sweden there’s evidence that great grey owl road mortality has also gone down. As far as we know, our project will be the first to use the technology in Britain.”

Welcoming the experiment, Hawk and Owl Trust President Chris Packham said:

“This seems a really sensible appliance of science and if it works we might see more owls in our countryside. We know from earlier Trust research that a significant proportion of the young owl population gets taken out on Britain’s roads.”

Nigel will be using deflectors manufactured by Swareflex, a subsidiary of Swarovski, to carry out the pilot project. The project will be assisted with data collection and handling by Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service (NBIS) which collects and manages records of Norfolk’s wildlife. Martin Horlock, NBIS biodiversity information officer, said:

“This pioneering project will not only explore the effectiveness of measures to reduce owl casualties, which sadly are all too frequent on our roads, but will also provide us with recent data on owl populations in the county.”

Nigel is regularly taking to his bicycle to monitor some of Norfolk’s roads for carcases. His findings will be added to information received from the public, wildlife hospitals and ringing recoveries from BTO data from 2005 onwards, to map active blackspots.

Some funding for the pilot project has come from the Hawk and Owl Trust’s 40th anniversary appeal. Further funding will be sought to enlarge the project if the deflectors prove to help wild birds of prey.

If you see a barn owl or other bird of prey casualty on any road verge in Norfolk please report your sightings to the Hawk and Owl Trust via the Trust’s website or write to Sculthorpe Moor Community Nature Reserve, Turf Moor Road, Sculthorpe, Fakenham, Norfolk, NR21 9GN. Please do not cause a danger to yourself or other road users by stopping to look at wildlife casualties whilst driving and please do not send the actual carcases to the Trust.

Although the Trust is particularly interested in Norfolk casualties, findings from roads in other counties will help map areas of the UK where it might be useful to site deflectors, if they prove successful.