Eagle Owls – Response to FERA “Risk Assessment” by North West Raptor Group

After reviewing the detail enclosed within the UK non-native organism risk assessment scheme 3.3. document, on behalf of the North West Raptor Group, we wish to place our concerns on record. In particular we strongly object to a number of unscientific and unsupported opinions/conjecture enclosed within the document. For example the Eurasian eagle owl is being classified as an alien species throughout the United Kingdom. There is no supporting scientific evidence for this claim what so ever.

Poorly publicised scheme

The first thing that should concern anyone with a practical interest in the Eurasian eagle owl is the way the Risk Assessment document has been handled and publicised. It was only by sheer chance that the document was highlighted to members of the NWRPG last week. We have now spoken to a number of England’s most experienced eagle owl experts, and it comes as no surprise to learn not one of them had any knowledge of the on-going risk assessment scheme 3.3. What kind of public consultation nonsense is this?

In a recent e-mail sent to John Miles at Geltsdale, the None Native Species Secretariat dealing with this ongoing project on behalf of FERA, informed Mr. Miles each person having an interest in eagle owls in this country had already been contacted. This reply flies in the face of reality. Major Anthony Crease, a devoted eagle owl expert with over thirty years eagle owl experience in both Germany and the UK, Tony Warburton, President of the World Owl Trust and Roy Dennis, all had no knowledge of what was being undertaken, or that the risk assessment document existed. In addition, all the field workers associated closely with eagle owls in the Forest of Bowland , including Terry Pickford, having also worked in Europe with eagle owls since the mid 1970’s in both the Czech Republic and Poland,  were totally unaware of the public consultation assessment taking place due to the lack of contact by FERA.

Attack information misleading

The statement that on occasion an eagle owl has been known to attack humans was most inappropriate and misleading, giving the wrong impression that an eagle owl was a danger to the public. This behaviour is also demonstrated by goshawk, peregrine falcon, hen harrier, tawny owl and the sparrow hawk when disturbed close to a nest containing  unfledged young. Let us not forget also the great skua and the capercaillie, (the largest member of the grouse family), both of these species are very aggressive to humans during the breeding season. Such a broad statement clearly indicates those individuals making such a comment had little or no first hand practical experience of bird behaviour in the natural environment. Of course another explanation may be that the individual making the claim intended to give a dog a bad name.

Instances of human attack by eagle owls are rare and in the majority of cases involve individuals approaching occupied nests containing unfledged chicks. It is a matter of record, humans are at a higher risk of attack by a tawny owl in the UK. Since 2004, there have been just two recorded instances in Bowland where an eagle owl, in defence of a nest containing unfledged young, carried out such an attack. The famous bird photographer Eric Hosking lost an eye after an attack by a female tawny owl. The first case of an eagle owl attack reported in the Forest of Bowland involved a person walking close to a nest with a dog off the leash, where the dog – not the person – was attacked. The second incident occurred when a bird watcher approached an occupied nest to take photographs of the three chicks the nest contained. If such instances are being used to condemn or give this species a bad name, the same protocol could be applied to a wide spectrum of British raptors including other wild birds when defending their nest against human disturbance; such a comment shows a lack of understanding and ignorance, even perhaps a degree of malice towards the eagle owl.

Predation on other species – where is the evidence?

The risk assessment document claims the eagle owls will predate on a range of birds of prey and is intolerant of other raptors and owls nesting within its territory. Where is the evidence that this has taken place in this country? In Europe where this natural phenomenon is more widely experienced and studied, not one raptor species has so far gone extinct as a result of such natural behaviour!

In Bowland when such a claim was made two years ago, the feathers of a hen harrier recovered close by the nest by a Natural England field officer were in fact identified by eagle owl experts as common gull feathers. Significantly in Bowland, and at one additional Cumbrian eagle owl territory, hen harrier, peregrine, tawny owl, kestrel, goshawk, short-eared owl and merlin are just a few raptor species nesting within or adjacent to an eagle owl territory without any antagonism between species. The pair of Yorkshire eagle owls and the pairs currently located in Lancashire and Cumbria are known to predate mainly on rabbit. Other prey items observed at nests in Bowland have been stoat, grey squirrel and pheasant. There is filmed evidence originating from the eagle owl territory in Yorkshire, lambs raised within the territory were never predated at all by the nesting pair of eagle owls during a ten year period of observation.

Major flaw in assumptions

There is one particular over-riding flaw contained in the document’s assumptions which we consider undermines the scientific value of the risk assessment’s conclusions. The document downplays any possibility that eagle owls historically may have crossed into the British Isles from Europe. No one can make such an assumption; in nature anything is possible. For example in 1975 a pair of spotted sandpiper’s flew across the Atlantic from North America and laid  a clutch of 4-eggs on the Isle of Skye at Uig.  Experts in the UK had claimed such an event was also impossible. We believe it would be foolhardy, irresponsible and dangerous for anyone to claim with any certainty that eagle owls at some point in the last few hundred years were not native to our shores. On the basis of probability, the likelihood that eagle owls within the UK existed and were breeding, is a more probable scenario given the numerous recorded observations of this species in remote regions of our country beginning in the 17th Century.

Importantly, before any final conclusions can be reached on the current eagle owl situation in the UK, a complete scientific study, evaluating the influence of the Eagle Owl upon its prey, together with its effect upon both habitats and ecosystems must be a priority. Such research should be undertaken in joint cooperation with experienced eagle owl field workers in each regional breeding location. The current risk assessment in our view places the cart in front of the horse and appears to be based upon hysteria and misinformation. Where is the evidence which proves the eagle owl in its current English range is invasive, posing a threat to other species, habitats or ecosystems? From our own studies undertaken in the Forest of Bowland throughout the last 6 years, non of our raptor group members have witnessed any invasive behaviour towards other raptors, habitats or ecosystems in the area.

Explore the evidence

England is a part of the wider European Community; as such we should consider carefully how we handle the eagle owl situation in our country before making any rash decision on the species future. The eagle owls currently benefits from full legal protection throughout all European countries; this legal status also applies to eagle owls currently breeding in Britain. If a cull is the final decision following the current consultation process, then any migrants from Europe that may already exist in the UK will also be condemned and exterminated along with the rest, this cannot be right or acceptable. Are we willing to make such a reprehensible decision without exploring the evidence as suggested above in a professional way to determine fact from fiction?

Terry R. Pickford
North West Raptor Group
January 2010

18 comments to Eagle Owls – Response to FERA “Risk Assessment” by North West Raptor Group

  • Mike Price

    We can only hope that they take the time to fully explore all the evidence and taken into account the opinions of the experts, the people who know the most about these birds.

    My own opinion is guarded to say the least, I love the birds and consider it would be a great crime to cull them, at the same time I would like to see further investigation done before we give them free reign to breed where ever.

    I’ve sent my opinion to FERA and reposted the link in as many places as I could think of to hopefully gather support a full and correct risk assessment to be done.

    We as bird/nature lovers cannot allow this sort of persecution to take place.

    • Admin

      The more responces that are sent to FERA the better. But don’t forget any replies which are submitted must arrive before 6 February, so you do not have much time.

      • Anne Cardwell

        I am unable to understand why the UK authorities have any concerns at all. Estate owners and their keepers will ensure Eagle Owls never become a problem by controlling their number in the same way they presently cull other birds of prey on their estates. There have been several instances in Lancashire already and one in Yorkshire where eagle owls were shot and nests containing eggs and young destroyed. So instead of initiating a risk assessment costing the tax payer thousands of pounds, just let the keepers do the job they are very good at for free.

  • Admin

    The most worrying aspect is the underhanded way the risk assessment has been implemented. It is very clear few members of the bird watching public were made aware of the consultation or its implications for breeding eagle owls in the UK. The fact that eagle owl naturalists/experts with an interest in conserving eagle owls were not even informed indicates the one-sided agenda of what is now going on.
    It is VITAL that every person with an interest in protecting British wildlife sends their concerns immediately to FERA. The details of contact addresses and e-mail are already on this web site, so please do not delay and pass this message on to anyone with an interst. The 6 February is the closing date for replies!

    • Admin

      Review of non-native species: Legislation and Guidance

      We have a question for all our readers: When is a species classified as native or non-native? Do the following DEFRA guidlines clarify this point when applied to Eagle Owl in the UK??

      The DEFRA guidelines state the following description for a Native Species (Indigenous).

      A species, subspecies or lower taxon, occurring within its natural range (past or present) and dispersal potential (i.e. within the range it occupies naturally or could occupy without direct or indirect introduction or care by humans).

      What is significant, DEFRA states the risk assessment is being undertaken because it was felt the eagle owls “could” have an adverse effect upon existing raptor populations, habitats and ecosystems in the UK? The word “could” is being used to condemn eagle owls, but in the definition used by DEFRA to qualify indigenous, the word “could” is being totally disregarded when used in that context.
      We wonder why?

      It would take a foolish or brave individual, to place his or her reputation on the line, by claiming no eagle owl in the past or in the future had not or would not cross the North Sea or English channel from Europe into the British Isles.

  • Major Anthony Crease, Retd.

    A much more simple, straight forward resolution to saving what remains of the raptor population in this country, certainly in this area, would be to ban shooting. Getting excited about the few Eagle Owls we have when it is
    patently obvious that unacceptable numbers of raptors are being shot and poisoned – and have been for years – seems to convey a mixed message.

  • After being a member of the RSPB for many years I have sadly seen fit to
    cancel my membership because of my dismay and disappointment in a society
    which claims to be the leading UK bird protection body, yet makes no comment
    about the risk assessment being produced by FERA which could result in the
    culling of the European Eagle Owl in Britain. By their very silence the RSPB
    are in my opinion supporting it and it’s dreadful consequences.

    I can find nothing in the RSPB’s constitution which says that they will
    protect some birds but not others. If they accept, as many more
    knowledgeable people do, that this the Eagle Owl is now a part of this
    countries avifauna, then they should have the courage to speak up, not sit
    on the fence and allow others to load the ammunition and fire the gun.

    If the RSPB support this risk assessment, which may result in the few
    breeding pairs of European Eagle Owls in Britain being culled, (a pair of
    which are nesting on an RSPB reserve by the way and would also could be
    culled), then the RSPB membership have a right to be informed of their policy
    in this matter.

    I am in total agreement with other comments on the Raptor Politics Web Site,
    in particular those of Anne Cardwell and Major Tony Crease who has worked
    with and studied these birds for many years; why may I ask weren’t these
    people asked to give their opinion by FERA?

    The RSPB should be putting more effort and resources into preventing the
    wide scale persecution of all birds of prey in this country which has become
    a major problem, being out of control at present. All birds of prey,
    including the Eagle Owl. are protected by both British and European Law and
    it is an offence to kill them as most people are fully aware.

    I feel I can no longer support the RSPB while they take this stance, going
    against everything they are thought to stand for and I know that many other
    people feel the same and have cancelled their RSPB memberships also. I urge all
    members to do the same if the RSPB continue to ignore what is happening and
    do not condemned what is currently taking place before it is too late and we
    lose a wonderful species, which I believe was almost certainly a native
    British species. If the current proposals are not prevented, which bird will
    be next!

  • Spunge_BOB

    A more sensible idea for both Natural England and the RSPB to consider would be to persuade the Government to cull all gamekeepers. There would be no need for a risk assessment, as the risks these individuals pose to raptors have been well documented by both the RSPB and Natural England already, and have been know for well over 100 years. This strategy would also save the tax-paying public many hundreds of thousands of pounds at the same time.

  • R.S.P.B; Nat England et al seems to be a deafening silence from our countryside/wildlife guardians, we need you to tell us if we can love or hate these magnificent birds of prey.Wait a minute, BIRDS OF PREY I thought we got burned at the stake or sold into slavery for persecuting birds of prey, Oh sorry just the ones you like
    Can I say when a large iconic raptor reintroduces itself at no cost please resist the temptation to exterminate it because it does,nt fall into the scope of a biodiversity action plan

  • I am at a loss to know where to start with this issue, suffice to say representatives of the RSPB seemed for some time intent on the eradication of these wonderful birds in the UK as highlighted by the well made BBC documentary “return of the eagle owl” to maintain their position as outlined in that documentary clearly became undefendable which would go some way to explain the sitting on the fence position now adopted by the RSPB. Why have a dog & bark yourself?

    There seems to be some confusion as to the true position of the RSPB as well as the FERA which i believe is probably helpful or convenient to them both with denials & counter denials but when the smoke screen lifts the Eagle owl will still be condemned by the findings or the Risk Assessment which by then will be accepted as fact, probably even by the RSPB? funny how they could adopt a position then appear mute & sit on the fence then possible in the future (although yet to happen) but more likely predictably be guided by that assessment which surely they must have had some kind of input even if only advising into consultees which would go some way to explain why the EEO experts were not consulted? call me sceptical but something has a very strange odour, I hope RSPB membership has a significant drop until it is forced into protecting these birds not selling them out.
    I would urge the BBC to rebroadcast their documentary including bringing it up to date with recent events might i suggest a new title “conspiracy of a species”

    • Peter Walker

      A friend of mine was talking to the RSBP warden in the Whitendale Valley on Sunday 15 April. When asked how many owlets the pair of Eagle Owls had had this year, the warden told him the eggs had not hatched yet. This was a curious comment to make as the pair laid their eggs as long ago as February and it only takes four weeks and a few days for EO eggs to hatch.

  • paul williams

    If the RSPB need help to clarify the situation with the Bowland Eagle Owls, all they need to do is pick up the phone and ask the experts at North West Raptor Protection Group.

  • dunsop harrier

    There are concerns that there are problems with the Whittendale Eagle Owls this year then? Can anyone clarify…..

    Editor’s Comment.. please tell us what you have heard and if it supports the information we have it could help when we decide to go public.

  • che

    I strongly suspect the site has failed due to incompetence, unnecessary disturbance or both resulting in a UU/RSPB cover up once again to conceal their deserved embarrassment???

  • dunsop harrier

    Its looking grim for the Whittendale Eagle Owls “first” breeding attempt this Spring! There is talk they have relocated nearby after failure? The two “stalwarts” and the helpers told many that the site was “secure”.How did they know that? Had they been into the scrape and if so why at such a critical time?

    Two chaps were caught by Estate Workers this last week at a Barn Owl site but with “permission” to be there up for debate?….on private non “CROW” land permission off the landowner MUST be gained for the licence to be valid!

    Regardless of the politics the common denominator prevails… Its not just a matter of experience!(Although important) Its competence! Its interesting how there appears, if this sites information is to be trusted, a position where differing levels of standards and interpretation are up for question….shocking stuff! DH.

  • CAROLE LANGSLOW

    why pick on the eagle owl did anyone do a risk assessment on the little owl, The reason why the eagle owl is being monitored is because they attack small dogs and pets, what about the birds the RSPB RELEASED the red kite is the RSPB Going to do risk assessment on them, In the national papers it said Birds swoop on terrified pupils,Schoolkids have been banned from playing outside-after being mugged by birds of prey,DOZENS OF TERRIFIED youngsters have been attacked and had their lunches stolen by marauding red kites.One lad at Icknield community college,in Watlington. Oxon, needed A tetanus jab after being pecked on the arm,