In April 2010, Eagle Owls will be included in the newly revised Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in England and Wales. Doubtless at some point the necessary legislative steps will make the revisions applicable in Scotland too. The overall provisions ban the sale of certain species and make it an offence to release into the wild any animal, or plant, that is not indigenous to Britain. A proven offence against the provisions carries a possible two year jail sentence or a £5000 fine.
There is much within the legislation that is sensible associated with, for example, the prevention of invasive plant species within watercourses, or the further introduction of non-native crayfish which have already been found to have decimated our own stocks in certain areas and so on.
When it comes to the Eagle Owl I support the intention aimed at limiting any releases to the wild, but feel there are a number of other issues the Government’s agencies need to address rather than feel the job of work is finished. To this extent its inclusion in Schedule 9 might muddy the water as opposed to providing an all embracing, once and for all solution! The whole question of the status of the species within the UK needs future examination and an unequivocal statement issued as to its position within our avifauna.
Undoubtedly some Eagle Owls have been released to the wild and some have escaped captivity. It is known that the species has bred freely and raised young in Britain in recent years too. Now whilst I feel we don’t want to see endless birds released willy-nilly into the wild, to include the bird on Schedule 9 amongst a list of other aliens begins to confuse what could be a different situation at the present time. In my opinion there are sufficient facts relating to a gradual westwards extension across Western Europe to suggest we be very careful about what label we do attach to the species!!
Birds can easily be seen in Iberia but now, much farther north, there is emerging evidence of breeding pairs in the Low Countries and of a persistent colonisation of the Baltic islands. So why not the odd migrant to Britain? Some sceptics pronounce the bird to be large and sedentary with a probable predilection against flying over a large body of water, i.e. the North Sea. Well, other raptors do it, as do Long-eared Owls, a selection of photographs of which can be seen on the North Sea Bird Club web site. Indeed it may well be the case that, as a species, it doesn’t like the idea of flying over the sea and, therefore, its westward extension comes to an abrupt stop. That presumption, at this very point in time, appears non-proven and somewhat convenient! We can’t prove immigration has not occurred, nor what would be the aftermath if a sufficiency were in Britain and part of the operating fabric of our countryside. Would they be a disastrous threat?
The web page the RSPB displays on the subject is, in my view, a fair assessment of the position despite the organization having concerns on the subject. A declaration that, if it were to arrive naturally, then they would welcome it as part of the avifauna, is firm and ad vocative and provides the clarity needed. Similarly their suggestion ( to Government that an impact assessment be completed of what is currently an increasing population again would provide a basis upon which better predictions could be made whatever happened in future years. The difficulty at the moment is that the offspring produced may be from escaped birds, but there is no way of knowing. Simply designating them as such is irresponsible in my view and ignores the demands of the situation, difficult though these may be.
There are those, of course, who will delight in the lack of recognition afforded to the species, and for whom its relegation to “alien status” will provide an opportunity to call for its control, or worse! At the present time I feel, quite sincerely, that we should be willing to be open minded and make every attempt to determine what the true situation might be. Difficult, of course it is, and demanding of imaginative ways of tackling a very challenging problem, but attempting to achieve this through “labelling” will never give us the truth and will be used by some to distort the situation. If, in the fullness of time, the population reaches a plateau, and then diminishes, we can accept the current provisions to be adequate and reflect the correct perspectives of the situation. In the meantime it seems to me that we should be open to a possible changing process and set prejudice and self interest aside so as to witness, properly, what could be a natural phenomenon ( running in parallel to what has been a similar “domestic” phenomenon in recent times ).
Discussions with colleagues have raised various points, almost legal points , about which I haven’t yet reached clarity in my own mind due, mainly, to a lack of precise knowledge on my part. Given Eagle Owl is a resident, “accepted ” species in Continental Europe it is obviously, and its young, afforded protective status under the European Birds Directive . As we are part of the European Union presumably the young produced in this country from parents whose derivation is presumed at the moment, not documented or proven, could be ( should be? afforded the same protection. Such would mean it being accepted into our avifauna? Heigh ho, that should get the “grey suits” in a state of flux!!!
John S. Armitage