Pest control is a major concern for farmers in Israel, as elsewhere. Today the green lobby discourages the use of chemicals that have a limited effect on rodents but a damaging effect on soil and water systems, ultimately entering the food chain to affect humans.
To resolve this problem, an innovative solution was devised by Prof. Yossi Leshem, an ornithologist, advocating the use of barn owls, whose natural instinct is to hunt and kill rodents. With the help of Israeli Army Industries, old ammunition cases were requisitioned as nesting boxes and placed in fields 200 meters-400 m. apart. These soon attracted the owls, which began to nest and begin their work as “vermin exterminators extraordinaires” – a perfect example of “beating their swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4).
This system has side benefits. Israel is located on one of the world’s main migratory paths for birds, but for years many were found dead as a result of eating prey poisoned by rodenticides.
Eliminating chemicals and using owls instead has helped to reduce this risk to birds, several of which were becoming endangered species.
Today there are around 3,000 nesting boxes in use, located not only in Israel but also in Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
In Jordan, owls were hunted for sport; tradition held that they brought misfortune. A media campaign established there promoted the understanding that far from being harbingers of bad luck, the owls could be harnessed to bring considerable benefits to farmers. Today, conservationists, scientists and farmers from all three areas meet regularly in Israel to exchange information and learn how to manage and extend the project.
Webcams installed in the boxes record the daily life of the owls. It is recorded that they can produce up to three broods of chicks a year.
Tel Aviv University researchers estimate that one pair of owls can catch between 2,000 and 5,000 rodents per year. Farmers with date plantations reported how rats used to nest in their dates, causing untold damage, but the use of owls had all but eliminated this, thereby improving crop yields significantly.
However, owls hunt only at night, so it was necessary to find a way to extend this process during daytime. This was resolved by using another bird of prey: kestrels, which hunt during the day and sleep at night. They, too, were provided with nesting boxes, into which they settled readily. Kestrels and owls are now the perfect partnership, providing a 24-hour organic “ratbuster” service to eradicate pests.
The project partners – Tel Aviv University, The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Amman Centre for Peace and Development and the Palestine Wildlife Society – show how, through using birds, which know no boundaries, productive and peaceful relations can exist among people of all three countries.
The hope for the future is that this scheme will now extend to neighboring countries so their farmers, too, can benefit by achieving the same positive results.
The writer, who lives both in London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer.Her next book, Unexpected Israel, should be published later this year.