Eagle Owl: Demon or Scapegoat? Sympathies divided for bird preparing to nest once more

DEAD EAGLE OWL

One of 3 Eagle Owl chicks, left to starve in a nest on the United Utilities Estates in the Forest of Bowland, after the breeding female vanished. 

A decade ago “The Eagle Owl Has Landed” made a sensational headline when it was revealed the world’s largest owl had built a nest in North Yorkshire.

However, any illegal egg collectors who may have found the news exciting stood no chance of getting near the breeding site unless they had been trained by the SAS. That’s because a pair of these 2ft-high owls – always a star attraction at displays of birds of prey – had taken up residence in a military exercise area to the west of Catterick Garrison.

Hot on the heels of that news came reports of the bird attempting to nest in Nidderdale as well as at sites in Cumbria and Derbyshire, and for a time it seemed eagle owls were colonising the UK from their strongholds in Scandinavia, Germany and Spain. But those hopes were dashed when senior ornithologists in the UK dismissed the birds as merely escapees from captivity and conferred on them the status of alien species.
Now I’m told the birds are again preparing to nest in an undisclosed location on the fringes of North Yorkshire, where a core breeding population has now developed. However, some conservationists are unenthusiastic, their chief allegation being that eagle owls don’t co-exist with indigenous birds of prey like peregrines and common buzzards, and kill tawny owls and our smallest raptor, the merlin.

Some birdwatchers like Terry Pickford, a member of a North West Raptor Protection Group working in the Forest of Bowland, want their nesting attempts to succeed but believe the birds are persecuted not only by gamekeepers on grouse moors but also by conservationists who accuse them of being a threat to England’s rarest nesting bird of prey, the hen harrier. Terry emphasises that eagle owls are legally protected in the UK and believes the birds are treated unfairly.

A few years back, he says, a pair of eagle owls nested in the North Pennines close to a breeding pair of hen harriers, but mysteriously disappeared. And in the Forest of Bowland last spring  (2015) the birds vanished from a nest in which eggs had been laid at the same time hen harriers were breeding.

Eagle-Owl-abandoned-Whitend

One of two abandoned Eagle Owl nests found at the end of the same breeding season by the North West Raptor Group in the Forest of Bowland. From evidence found it was clear both nests had been visited repeatedly by irresponsible individuals. 

Quite how many birds there are in the UK is unknown. Few people are around at night to hear the owl’s haunting double-call of “hu-ut-oo-lu” in its habitat of remote uplands and coniferous forests.

An RSPB officer told me that if there was a significant increase in eagle owl numbers it might be wise to “nip the colonisation in the bud” before they became a problem for our own birds of prey. A comparison was made with the American mink, which escaped from fur farms and almost wiped out our native water vole. Others prefer to compare it with the little owl, which was brought to the UK in Victorian times and stigmatised as the scourge of game birds. But in the 1930s a study found they fed on beetles and craneflies, and it was finally embraced as a British bird.

This article was first published by the Yorkshire Post and written by Roger Ratcliffe 16 March 2016

14 comments to Eagle Owl: Demon or Scapegoat? Sympathies divided for bird preparing to nest once more

  • Terry Pickford, North West Raptor Protection Group

    These birds don’t stand a chance of survival on grouse moors. On one hand their nests are destroyed and adult birds shot, on the other hand their nests in the Forest of Bowland have been repeatedly visited by irresponsible individuals who claim to have their interests at heart. The evidence above proves what has been allowed to take place beyond any doubt. Shame on all of you. Don’t visit eagle owl nests when containing eggs or small chicks, but of course you already know that don’t you because that was the advice you give to others, but then ignore yourself?

  • Bird lover & concerned U.U. customer!

    It’s amazing what comes out after a few drinks with ‘an unnamed but reliable source’ and it follows on nicely (or not) with the above report. I guess I have a lot to learn yet and to be totally honest, it is a most painful experience thus far, doing so. My source informed me of the forthcoming excuse for the failure of hen harriers to even arrive in Bowland to breed this season will be down to the shortage of voles, surprisingly nothing what so ever to do with persecution! It was only an afterthought on my part that had me questioning this in my mind. It troubles me as to why exactly, would such a majestic bird be favoured by ‘some’ and victimised and persecuted by others? Others, being Game-keepers. WHY would they kill a bird which reportedly claimed by the RSPB feeds primarily on voles.

  • Skydancer

    The problem is that unfortunately the majestic eagle owl has decided to nest on grouse moors which causes a real problem for the rspb who are already under pressure from landowners not to support the petition to ban driven grouse shooting, so the last thing they need is another predator on the grouse moors upsetting their landowner friends and paymasters .

  • Yet again people are ready to condem the Eurasian Eagle owl,one report says lets cull them before a problem occurs,without even doing a survey as to how many are actually in the wild.So if there is so many don/t tell me these are all escapees, i think u will find that the marsh Harriers had all but disapeared before the Eagle owls turned up,
    we all know that certain groups don/t want them around anyway,these birds were in this country early 1900s when they were persecuted to extinction,oh while we are on the subject was/nt the Little Owl a foreign introduction all quite there

  • Percy Stanbury

    The Bowland Eagle Owls will never be safe whilst the XXX XXX XXXXX are left in charge of the Owls “care”.

    Editor’s Comment. Sorry Percy what you stated can not be printed as it constitutes possible libel.

  • Percy Stanbury

    Sorry Ed. Percy if that is your name, we accept your apologies.

    Editor’s Comments. Once again we are unable to publish the incorrect detail you have provided. It was not a hen harrier nest where a pair of gloves were left in the nest, it was a peregrine ground nest. And it was true the licensed individual visiting the nest after being asked not to visit the site under any circumstances, did so taking his grandson without coordinating the visit with the peregrine coordinator, then keeping the pair of falcons from their eggs for at least one hour while he and this grandson had their lunch. Please try and get the fact correct? The police were called, but then requested to stand down after the identity of the licensed individual was established, all very embarrassing.

  • Peter finn

    Think we Need to sort our natural wildlife out first.we don’t even have any breading Eagles in England, never mind eagle owls.had a walk up dunsop valley today and saw No birds of prey,only wagtails,swallows pheasant and grouse.such an outstanding area but ecologically dead.

  • Gayle

    The presumption seems to be that they are all escapees. Has this been properly investigated? After all other bird species have and still are establishing themselves without human intervention in the UK. Has this more to do with the predatory nature of this species perhaps? Predators it appears are not welcome,especially those on the large size.

    Editor’s Comment Hello Gayle. The point you raise is a valid question. As far as we are aware this issue has not been investigated. Whether it will is another matter, we must wait and see.

  • Stephen Welch

    >> As far as we are aware this issue has not been investigated.

    It certainly has been investigated in the past, see the 2008 BB paper*:

    The Eagle Owl in Britain. 2008. Tim Melling, Steve Dudley & Paul Doherty | British Birds 101: 478-490

    * https://www.britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/The-Eagle-Owl-in-Britain.pdf

    See also the RSPB summary that makes reference to this and the previous BB paper on archealogical records.

    In a nutshell wild origin has been impossible to prove, and on balance of probability the majority at least are/derive from escapes. Hence no admission to the British List. But RSPB also do not support a cull, as stated there. Clearly even if majority are derived from escapes, if even a very small number were indeed wild then it would be a rather bizarre position to be advocating their persecution, whatever impact they might be having on native wildlife – just imagine the opposite situation where the last handful of individuals of a declining, rather than (potentially) colonising, native British species were officially sanctioned for extermination – that would cause some outcry…

    Editor’s Comment. Stephen thank you for your explanation, we were hoping someone would explain the position.

  • Stephen Welch

    PS – the RSPB summary mentioned in last:

    https://www.rspb.org.uk/forprofessionals/policy/species/nonnative/eagleowls.aspx

    (NB – I have no connection to RSPB, I’m a local bird recorder in SE Scotland, Eagle Owl has occurred in our area)

  • Albert Ross

    Stephen, Thanks for the links to those papers. I had long been baffled by the claims of ‘alien’ species but the reasoning in that first document did clear the air. Recommended reading. Clear and unemotional. I have saved mine to hard drive.
    One thing the research did not apparently did not do was an ‘Population map’ showing the incidence of Eagle Owls around the British Isles. I find it odd that most population groupings are in the North of England if not Britain and wonder what the explanation may be as this is not a species restricted to moorland and high ground. Most ‘invasions’ from Europe start in the South East and spread north and west from there and one would have thought that Eagle Owls would occur more in southern England that they do.
    Having said that I don’t really care where they came from as long as they stay here.

  • Paul Doherty

    As one of the co-authors of the 2008 paper in British Birds I would also draw your attention to a further note we published in the September 2011 issue of British Birds (Volume 104:544-546) which gave additional evidence regarding the status and movements of Eagle Owls in Europe. The evidence demonstrated that Eagle Owls are relatively sedentary birds which normally avoid crossing large bodies of water. We concluded that “we remain firmly of the opinion that current British records relate to escapes, illegal releases and their offspring and that input of wild birds from the continent is either zero or so low that it is effectively zero.”

    Further information regarding this subject can be found in a previous Raptor Politics story and especially in the resulting comments:-

    http://raptorpolitics.org.uk/2010/11/11/eagle-owl-swedish-research-proves-crossing-large-bodies-of-open-water-no-problem/

  • Albert Ross

    I concur with that. This is why I queried the lack of ‘distribution map’ which would not show a cluster around the south east which would surely be the case if there was a natural influx?
    But whether a natural colonisation or artificially induced the fact remains that there is a viable population at large in Britain and in need of the protection afforded under the Wildlife Act. I would rather have two Eagle Owls than 500 Grey Squirrels or Parakeets.

  • Stephen Welch

    Yes, thanks to Paul’s note I now see that this was all thoroughly discussed back in 2010, and interesting read, and apologies I had missed that. I find it hard to argue with the evidence presented there, mainly by Paul, and comparisons with other owl species, like Tawny to Ireland, Heligoland owls, etc. Having said that it remains impossible to say categorically that none have ever crossed, or could ever cross, because the accumulated body of evidence only deals with what normally happens under certain monitored scenarios – e.g. degree of “sedentariness” in land-locked settings may not be entirely representative of willingness to cross open water – and we do have some empirical evidence here, 46km to Oland is indeed more than 20km to Ireland. And though they are related, all being owls, we are dealing with a wide range of species which are physically very different, and there may be a host of other things affecting the behaviour of individual birds that we have not appreciated. We might all give a different number if asked to predict how many EO’s had ever crossed/will ever cross to Britain but to assert that it is and will remain exactly zero is a difficult position to maintain…