Just as everyone was putting up their trees and getting into the spirit of Christmas, I got a nasty shock.

A young barn owl I have watched since the day it hatched was shot dead.

I discovered the owl’s white corpse just as I was about to put food onto a post for it. It had been shot between the eyes with an air rifle.

Its loss is a real blow, not only to me, but to all who live in this tight-knit rural community on the Yorkshire Wolds.

This year the barn owls here have done really well and many pairs have actually raised two broods.

Their breeding success is remarkable when you consider all the factors that need to be in place for these beautiful white owls to thrive.

Not only do they need somewhere suitable to nest near an ample supply of food, but they cannot even begin to breed if they have not reached a healthy weight after making it through winter.

They also need favourable weather conditions for most of the year. These owls are relatively lightweight and have great difficulty hunting in heavy or prolonged rain and also struggle to survive in sub-zero temperatures.

Over the years, I’ve worked with local farmers to put up more than 150 boxes across the Yorkshire Wolds to support these special birds.

My efforts to help them ratcheted up a gear in 2010 after 80 per cent of the region’s barn owl population perished during prolonged winter snows. Each night during that bitter freeze-over I drove across fields of waist-high snow delivering food to the surviving pairs.

Many local farmers also began offering extra food to surviving pairs on their land so that they could breed the following year and re-colonise the area.

This work has continued to this day and I also re-introduce these foundling owlets into wild owl nests at my home in Thixendale.

I have hidden cameras inside nest boxes in my garden so that I can learn more about their behaviour for my paintings. This year I got to watch one pair as it raised a clutch of four chicks.

These tiny owlets grew fast. By the time they were just 10 days old they each had a thick covering of down.

It was amazing to watch the chicks develop, especially when they grew big enough to venture from a tight huddle at the back of the nest box to explore their surroundings.

They quickly became adventurous, climbing up the sides of the nest and flapping their wings to strengthen their muscles ready for their first flights. It was fun to see their wing feathers sprout through and their white down shed in clouds of fluff.

Soon the first chick bobbed up and peeked out of the entrance of the nest hole. At nine weeks old the first two chicks fledged the nest. It was magical to see them fly free.

All four owlets remained in the garden for weeks, perfecting their flying skills and learning to hunt for themselves.

Meanwhile, their parents began making plans for a new family. I noticed the pair began to spend more and more time roosting in a new nest box, lovingly preening one another’s facial discs.

Before long the female had laid four more eggs. I was delighted. I’ve never had a second brood here at Fotherdale and now this hard-working and dedicated pair had raised eight chicks in total.

Early in September, I visited more than a dozen sites in the area to record and ring the number of owlets in each box. It turned out that the breeding success I had enjoyed at Fotherdale had been replicated across the whole of the Wolds.

I shared the news with the farmers whose land these nest sites are on. Everyone was so pleased. For many, the presence of a barn owl is something to be proud of, almost a badge of honour.

And so when I discovered one of this year’s young owls had been shot, the community joined me in expressing their grief.

In the hours after I alerted the village to the news on our Thixendale Facebook group, messages of support and disbelief zipped across the internet and along phone lines. No-one could quite believe it.

People were shocked and upset. The rich diversity of life so many had worked hard to create and were proud of felt like it had been shattered.

Hopefully 2020 will bring better luck for the barn owls that I have come to know so well.

Robert Fuller