If the Chinese whispers presently circulating and comments posted on Bird Guides are to be believed, Defra appear to have reached their decision giving the Eagle Owl a firm thumbs down in the UK. If eventually Defra confirm the rumour and speculation which is currently in circulation, after consultation with their partner agencies, certainly all eagle owls throughout the whole of the UK will be culled; this will include non native (escapees), as well as any native birds which already exist in the wild in the UK. However Raptor Politics should point out that Defra have so far not given any indication of what their final decision will be, one way or the other. Raptor Politics now understands that the final decision will be taken by Mr. Richard Benyon MP, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Minister for the Natural Environment and Fisheries)on Friday.
No one however will be too surprised at the decision taken by Defra if the current rumours are proved correct; the cards were always stacked heavily against Eagle Owls from the very beginning. Just look at the underhanded way FERA handled the implementation of their risk assessment on behalf of Defra.
Only a selected small number of individuals and organisations appear to have been notified by FERA that the risk assessment consultation document even existed. There was justified concern that many Eagle Owl experts and organisations like the World Owl Trust and The International Owl Society were not contacted by FERA. Local raptor study groups with a sound knowledge and understanding of wild Eagle Owls and their ecology on the ground in Lancashire and Yorkshire were never contacted or requested to make their views known to FERA, why?
When the detail of the risk assessment being undertaken finally reached the wider public via the internet thanks to the publicity generated on Face Book and information published on the Raptor Politics Web Site, thousands of comments were then eventually returned to FERA just prior to the cut off period. After the response from the public began to climb the risk assessment details mysteriously disappeared from the Defra Web Site, at one point being relocated elsewhere making the information even more difficult to access. Even Dr. Mark Aviary, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation made a comment that he had struggled to locate the details of the FERA risk assessment on the web.
Until Defra have published their analysis and conclusions of the FERA report, Raptor Politics have decided at this time our comment will be restricted. However there are a number of very important points we wish to highlight now before the door is shut.
From an analysis of pellets recovered in Cumbria, Yorkshire and the Forest of Bowland, the evidence clearly shows that the Eagle Owl are not an invasive species, predating up to 90% on rabbits. Five years ago according to information from Defra itself, conservative figures indicated that the damage caused to the UK environment by rabbits exceeds one hundred million pounds each year. This figure does not include the damage caused to private gardens or allotments and will certainly have increased by now.
There is now suspician that blame will be placed on the shoulders of the Eagle Owl for killing and eating a hen harrier, thus providing justification for a cull. The facts are these, no eagle owl has been observed any where in the UK predating on a hen harrier, or eating it. We feel it is very significant that this year hen harriers in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland had one of the best breeding seasons for many years producing 23 fledged young. They achieved this high productivity while sharing their moorland ecosystem with at least 3 breeding pairs of eagle owl, two pairs producing 6 owlets. So this leads to the next question, will the Minister’s decision be taken based upon misleading and incorrect data?
The view that the Eagle Owl is a non native species is simply that, an opinion. Fragments of skeletal remains including the right tars metatarsus have been found at Demens Dale, in Derbyshire in 1988, and two pieces of ulna found at the Meare Lake Village site, in Somerset in 1966. The specimen from Demens Dale (not dated), was without doubt from an Eagle Owl. Tony Turk’s article on the Eagle Owl, titled “ The Eagle Owl in Britain 2004 has the Native Returned?” lists many sites where the remains of Eagle Owls have been found from Cornwall in the South of England to the North of Scotland. It was thought that these Owls gradually moved northwards and this has been proven by remains being found in Derbyshire (1823), Orkney (1830), Unst (1863) and Aberdeenshire (1866), this perhaps is why there are a higher concentrations of Eagle Owls on moorlands in the north of England today. As Tony Turk states in his article “ It would not be wise to discount the possibility that with recovering populations of eagle owls on the European Mainland that visitors have already, or will in the future travel to these shores, this is perfectly feasible.”
The isotopic analysis of a feather taken from the Eagle Owl found alive in East Anglia according to Andrew Kelly, initially concluded this bird had originated from Scandinavia. However it seems just before Dr. Kelly moved to a new post he curiously changed his opinion.
On the balance of probability, it is more likely and reasonable to conclude that Eagle Owls have at sometime in the recent past, (within the last few hundred years), crossed the North Sea from mainland Europe into Britain. After all, if the smallest UK bird the Firecrest can fly unaided from one side of the North Sea to the other, it is reasonable to argue so could the Eagle Owl. European Barn Owls and European Scops Owls do so, as does the Short-eared Owl and Snowy Owl, so the argument that Eagle Owls do not cross water does not hold up.
Should Defra succeed in persuading the government to sign all the necessary paper work to push through a cull of Eagle Owls in the UK, complete with European endorsement of this proposal, it will be very disappointing apart being based upon sound science. Will the public be happy that tax payers money will be used to fund such a cull at a time when the public are being told tax rises are on the way? Will raptor groups who have been monitoring these birds on the ground for many years and other ornithological organisations support or wish to take a part in such a cull? We are confident they will not.
It is also very important to highlight that all eagle owls breeding throughout the UK are not only protected by the Wildlife & Countryside Act, they are also protected under European legislation also. Before a cull can go ahead we understand that the UK government may also need to consult Europe for their approval!
If the Minister approves the cull on Friday, the contract should be handed to the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, after all nothing is more certain their members would carry out the project aims without passing any costs to the tax payer, thus saving many thousands of pounds.