Conservationists are celebrating after an active barn owl nest was discovered in Co Down.
The find at a farm close to Downpatrick brings the current number of active nests in Northern Ireland to three.
Two fluffy white chicks made their first appearance this week from the nest box erected almost five years ago.
Farmer David Sandford said he was ecstatic to find the chicks.
He chairs the Nature Friendly Farming Network and has won awards for his sustainable farming work.
He said: “About two weeks ago, I thought I heard snoring sounds coming from one of the nest boxes.
“This is a distinctive begging call made by hungry chicks, so you can imagine my excitement after years of occasional sightings.
“I contacted Ulster Wildlife immediately to take a look and was ecstatic when we found chicks.”
Conor McKinney, from Ulster Wildlife, said the nesting barn owls had chosen an ideal location.
“We are delighted for David, whose wonderful farm is now home to a family of barn owls, and pleased one of our nest boxes attracted some special occupants,” he said.
“Barn owls are in serious decline in Northern Ireland caused by a lack of nest sites and suitable foraging habitat. Luckily, this pair couldn’t have chosen a more sympathetic farm to set up home with wild bird cover, meadows and mature hedgerows – holding plentiful mice and shrews for barn owls to thrive.”
In the last few years, Ulster Wildlife has identified four active barn owl nest sites across Northern Ireland.
But one of the nests was lost when weather downed a tree in 2014, and in 2018 another site was lost due to a road traffic accident.
This latest nest discovery has brought the total up from two to three sites again.
The barn owl is one of Northern Ireland’s rarest and most endangered birds and is protected under the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985.
It is illegal to look in barn owl nest boxes, photograph or film their nest without a special licence.