Efforts are being made in Northern Ireland to increase the barn owl population after decades of decline.

Four barn owls were ringed in Co Antrim last night, following efforts to encourage them back to the area by putting up boxes and by doing supplementary feeding.

Barn owls have declined by over 50% in Ireland over the past few decades and are now listed as a species of concern, with loss of habitat is one of the main factors for the decline.

Ulster Wildlife volunteer Ciarán Walsh said changes in agricultural practices and the use of pesticides has led to a sharp decline in the barn owl population.

Volunteer nest minders Pete Crossett, Noel McKernan, Peter Toner and Ciaran Walsh

He said: "They are losing their nesting sites slowly. Also when people see one rat they think they have an infestation and they reach for the poison.

"If a poison rat came into this nest, the four of them would be dead. That's what has been happening for years from after the Second World War with farming intensification.

"In the south, it was not as bad because they didn't have the surplus funds to go out and buy rat poison, farms remained old school and the owls were left to do their own thing.

"They have about 700 pairs in the south at the moment and basically we have three pairs in Antrim that we know of and there’s one pair in Co Down.

An owlet is ringed and weighed

"We go out and put out nest boxes in old barns and in trees.

"I also get seed where I feed mice at these sites to bring a lot of rodents in and then the owls have food there and the nest boxes there so it becomes the perfect site and home for them and hopefully that’s enough."

The owl is often associated with myths and legends.

Unlike other owls, barn owls do not hoot, but shriek, which gave rise to the legend of the banshee in folklore.