Owls are some of the most beautiful birds of prey in the British Isles. Living in a variety of habitats, there are five species of owls that can be found within the confines of the UK, each with its own distinct looks, characteristics and behaviour. These owls are spread throughout the land but are all wonderful additions to the diverse wildlife that thrive within these borders. They are particularly well loved due to their almost human-looking facial characteristics, with wide, forward -facing eyes often set within a 'disc' of feathers that looks like a face. 

The Little Owl
The aptly named little owl is one of the most frequently observed of the UK owl population, as it has a tendency to sit on top of high posts such as telegraph poles and is not purely a nocturnal predator. It is a dumpy little bird that weighs between 150 and 230 grams and looks as though it is constantly frowning due to dark markings around the eyes. The little owl, which was introduced into the UK in the early 19th century, will bob its head from side to side when it senses danger, giving the impression that it is trying to get a closer look at its threat. The call of the little owl is disproportionate to its size, with a screeching, penetrating sound that is sure to strike terror into the small mammals that form a significant part of its diet. It will also eat prey such as earthworms, slugs, small fish, snails and a great number of insects. Its habitat is generally farmland that has lots of hedgerows in which it can hide and nest, particularly in central, southern and south-eastern England. 

The Short-Eared Owl
Unlike its other British cousins, the short-eared owl lives predominantly in open spaces such as grassy moorland and even sand dunes. It is striking to look at, with a pair of yellow eyes that sit within a pale facial disc. This owl is one of the quieter species, and this, coupled with its nocturnal habits, means it isn't spotted as easily as some of the other owls. Feeding on field voles in the main, the short-eared owl will also eat such prey as shrews and rats. The short-eared owl is mainly various shades of brown and is stockier than the long-eared variety as well as having a much longer wing-span. These birds are more likely to be seen in northern England and Scotland during the winter months, when an influx of birds from Scandinavia swells the numbers. 

The Long-Eared Owl
Well camouflaged and smaller than a wood pigeon, the long-eared owl is easy to overlook for bird-watchers and naturalists alike. It rarely makes a sound, which adds to the problems of trying to observe this ancient species, as do the facts that it is both nocturnal and inclined to stay within woodland. If it is to be spotted at all, it is most likely to be in coastal regions during migration. It has two long feathery 'ears' that it raises when it is alarmed and a prominent facial disc from which its deep orange eyes peer out. Its long pointed wings can reach a span of between 90cm and100cm, and its bark-coloured plumage serves to keep it well hidden within its habitat. It feeds on field voles as well as small birds and shrews.

The Tawny Owl
This is a widespread species that can be found in all areas of the UK, with the exception of Northern Ireland. Established pairs tend not to leave their area of residence, although young birds move on from their breeding grounds in the autumn. This is the owl that makes the 'to-whit, to-whoo' sound that is familiar to all, both due to the ease of recognition and to the fact that the tawny owl is the most prevalent wild raptor in the UK, with approximately 50,000 breeding pairs across the region. These breeding pairs are, on the whole, monogamous in nature, and pairs form long-term bonds. Tawny owls are, as their name suggests, a chestnut brown in colour. It is streaked with browns and black and has deep-set, penetrating eyes set within a facial disc. Like the other owls, it feeds on small mammals such as voles, shrews and field mice, although tawny owls that are more urbanised are also known to be voracious house-sparrow predators. Unlike the quiet and secretive long-eared owl, tawny owls are loud and frequently heard, particularly in the autumn when breeding grounds are being established.

The Barn Owl
The barn owl is arguably the most iconic British owl, with its familiar white plumage featuring on many greetings cards. It is a silent predator that uses its hearing to hunt small prey such as field voles. Unfortunately, the very fact that it specialises in this type of hunting has also led to its rapid decline, because it is very vulnerable to even small changes in its environment. Increased usage of pesticides such as DDT have had a profound effect on the population, as has the dwindling of suitable nesting grounds as barns are being converted from their original use. The barn owl's ears are slightly uneven, with one being higher than the other. This arrangements helps them to pinpoint the direction and distance of their prey, allowing them to swoop down with fatal accuracy. As with the tawny owl, pairings are mostly monogamous and long-term. Nesting takes place in tree or rock cavities and in outbuildings; the wetter the climate, the more likely the nest will be found within a building rather than in the outdoors. Due to the particular vulnerability of the barn owl, they have a special protection under law designed to prevent them from being disturbed during nesting or breeding.

Owl Pellets
An interesting feature of owls is the way in which they deal with their food. Unlike other birds, they don't possess a 'crop', which is an organ that allows them to store their food after it has been swallowed so that it can be digested later. Whilst an owl's gizzard can digest many organic materials, things such as fur, bones and feathers cannot be dealt with by the owl's digestive system. As these are too dangerous to pass through the digestive tract, they are compacted by the gizzard into a tight wad, which is then regurgitated. These regurgitated balls are known as owl pellets. 

Pellets are ejected through a process that looks like the owl is having a severe bout of coughing, but although this may look uncomfortable, the fact is that the pellet remains soft until it has been expelled and does not cause the owl any distress. Pellets are a source of interest for many people, from bird-watchers and naturalists to children who like to explore the world around them. Indeed, owl pellets can be bought for the purposes of dissecting and examining, and it's possible to identify whole skeletons in some instances.

Conservation Projects
Due to the special protection afforded to barn owls in particular, much of the conservation work in the UK is geared towards preserving their habitats. Charities such as the Barn Owl Trust are committed to educating people about how to conserve this wonderful predator, with advice to help combat such issues as the use of pesticides, the decline in suitable nest sites and particular hazards from environmentally friendly power sources such as ground-mounted solar panels. The erection of suitable nest boxes is encouraged, placing them as soon as possible when the loss of a building is recognised and as close to the site as possible without disturbing any current nesting. In the case of solar panels, owners are encouraged to allow the surrounding area to be left wild to allow for the reintroduction of species that provide food sources for the owls.

Habitat Management
In order to provide suitable habitats for owls, good land management is essential. Rough grassland is great for field vole populations, which in turn is great for the owls that prey on them. Grass should be allowed to grow tall so that it will fall in the autumn and create a good litter layer, which allows voles the cover that they need for their tunnels and nests. Low-density cattle grazing is a great way to manage the land without grass cutting, but if this is impractical, streaming the uppermost layer (being sure to avoid the litter layer) can help keep the land under control. Whilst not always possible, habitat specific for barn owls should be kept as far away from main roads as possible, as traffic noise will disturb both the owls and their prey. 

These incredible creatures are truly a joy to behold and are a vital part of the British countryside and the eco-system. From the cross-looking little owl to the majestic barn owl, the owl population of the UK is integral to our lives, with the 'too-whit, too-whoo', the feathery ear tufts and the silent swoop forming part of our literature, our art and our heritage.