September 19, 1988 12:00 PM

For almost too long, no one in England seemed to give a hoot about the fate of the barn owl. “We very nearly persecuted it, if unwittingly, out of existence,” says Bruce Berry, who is known around Great Britain as “the owl man.” From an estimated high of 12,500 breeding pairs in the British Isles 50 years ago, the number of barn owls—second in U.K. popularity only to robins—has declined steadily to an estimated 3,000 pairs today, due mainly to the increased use of toxic chemicals and to the loss of suitable habitat. “It has got to stop,” says Berry. “We’ve got to give the bird a chance to reestablish itself.”

Berry, 42, is trying to give the birds a hand. Operating on a 12½-acre former pig farm in the ironically named town of Crow, he breeds barn owls for release into the wild. Twenty of the birds were set free last year; Berry hopes to release 100 this year. Impressed by his efforts, the government recently awarded him a grant, giving added legitimacy to the save-the-barn-owl cause.

Born on the Isle of Wight, Berry cannot remember a time when he wasn’t interested in birds. Sidetracked for 11 years while he served as a pub keeper in Middlesex, “right under the flight path for Heathrow airport,” he made the jump from ale to aviaries in 1987. Berry bought a pair of barn owls and began Back to the Wild, a nonprofit organization devoted to putting the birds back into the blue yonder. “I reckon we just exchanged one flight path for another,” says Marion, 41, Berry’s wife of 22 years, who’s in charge of preparing the barn owls’ diet—strips of dead, day-old baby chickens.

Some may quail at such a meal. Others quail at Berry’s entire scheme. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Britain’s most prestigious ornithological group, has suggested that his owls are being released prematurely. “The reasons for their decline might still exist,” says species protection officer Graham Elliot. “Mr. Berry may be committing his birds to a very bleak future.”

Berry disagrees. He believes that fewer toxic chemicals are being used on crops and that a reduction in the size of dairy herds has created tracts of fallow land that can support his birds. “I take as many precautions as I can to ensure that the birds survive,” says Berry, who personally surveys each release site. “If you do that, you can’t do any more. Nat?Oe will take over.”

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