Catching a glimpse of a barn owl in flight is one of the most rewarding wildlife experiences you can have. The barn owl's large, pale form and heart-shaped face are instantly recognisable – and with its silent flight and ghostly white silhouette it is one of Britain's most magical birds.
But spotting one isn't easy. Once widespread across the UK, barn owls have suffered major declines since the 1950s. According to the Hawk and Owl Trust, barn owl numbers have dropped from 12,000 pairs to just 4,000 pairs since 1932. And although this population has now stabilised – a combination of the provision of nest boxes and diversification of agricultural land – barn owls continue to face problems that threaten their survival.
As old barns are pulled down or renovated, barn owls are finding it harder and harder to find places to nest. Intensive farming has led to a loss of foraging habitat, in particular rough grassland. Add to this the challenges created by extreme weather conditions and climate change, and it's easy to understand why the future for these beautiful birds hangs in the balance.
The plight of the barn owl has long been a concern for Staffordshire smallholders Alan and Sylvia Williams. When the couple retired in 2002 they put into action a lifelong dream: to buy some woodland and create a nature reserve that would provide a rich and diverse habitat for wildlife.
The moment you step through the gates at Tean Valley Meadow, you know Alan and Sylvia's dreams have been realised. The trees are alive with birdsong, birds flit in and out of the branches and bumblebees buzz around the bluebells on the woodland floor.