BARN owl numbers are making a remarkable recovery in parts of the North-East, according to a Forestry Commission-backed scheme.

The bird, usually associated with lowland areas, especially in the South of England, has shown a three-fold increase due to milder winters and a recovery project in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, and on surrounding farms.

Six years ago, naturalist Brian Little, from Blaydon, Tyneside, who is leading conservation efforts, recorded only two breeding pairs in the area and last year found only three.

But this summer, that number has risen to nine, living in nest boxes made by the Forestry Commission. Lack of natural nesting sites was a key reason for the bird's decline.

Mr Little said: "When I first came to the North Tyne in 1960 I recorded 20 breeding pairs, mostly living in redundant farm buildings.

"But many of these were demolished, sending bird numbers into a spin. Providing purpose-built nests is absolutely crucial. We have put them in buildings and this year we even found two pairs of barn owls squeezed into much smaller tawny owl boxes."

To cope with the expanding population, 12 more boxes will be erected this autumn, bringing the total in the North Tyne area to about 30.

Mr Little said: "After relying on plastic drums, we are now using purpose-built boxes made at the Kielder Forest depot.

"They look like a tea chest, but are nice and dark, with spruce needles spread on the floor.

"Young chicks spend nine weeks holed-up before fledging, so it is important we get the environment right."

Another factor cited for the resurgence is that the barn owl is doing well in Cumbria and Dumfries and the population may be expanding eastwards.