Eagle Owl Cull – A reply from Richard Benyon M.P. to The President of The World Owl Trust


[singlepic id=229 w=250 h=152 float=left]As many readers of this site will be aware, on 28 September I wrote to Richard Benyon M.P., the Minister for Natural Environment & Fisheries on behalf of the World Owl Trust , the man charged with the responsibility of making the final decision regarding a possible cull of European Eagle Owls currently present and breeding in Britain.  Our letter requested answers to specific questions posed.  After a month’s wait we have now received a response and I will try to précis here, both our questions and Mr Benyon’s answers, with some personal comments.  I have to apologise in advance for the length of this tome, but in view of the fact that we still await the verdict of Mr Benyon’s deliberations, I feel his responses merit full exposure so that everyone will be aware of where we stand at this moment.  Most of all I implore you to read my last paragraph. Read Mr. Warburton’s letter to Mr.Richard Benyon here.

Q.1 Who comprise the Great Britain Non-native Risk Analysis Panel (NNRAP); which organisations/bodies do they represent; how were they selected; and most importantly, what first-hand field knowledge do they have of Eagle Owls in Britain, and where were their observations made?

  • A.   The NNRAP is a group of risk assessment experts that ensures risk assessments are conducted properly according to the agreed methodology.  Membership of the NNRAP includes experts from Imperial College London (Chair); CEFAS; FERA; Scottish Association for Marine Science; Sheffield University; and Defra – Veterinary Science Team.  In addition to input from the public and scrutiny by the Panel, the individual assessments are verified through independent peer review by another expert in the same subject matter.

 Comment.  You will note that Mr Benyon was apparently unable to answer the last three questions.  This would suggest that the Panel’s deliberations will depend entirely on the answers given by the Risk Assessment assessor who answered the questions, rather than any first-hand knowledge from people working in the field. The question therefore arises – “who was the ‘independent risk assessor’, and what first-hand knowledge of Eagle Owls in the field in Britain did he or she possess?

The answer to this question came when Mike Toms, Head of Garden Ecology Team at the BTO replied to a letter from Chrissie Harper dated 5 October 2010 (published on this site).  To quote: – “We (the BTO) were asked by the Non-native Species Secretariat to carry out a series of Risk Assessments for a number of avian species, including the Eagle Owl.  I produced the Eagle Owl Risk Assessment because of my longer term research interests (my emphasis). This assessment involved a literature review to establish known facts (again my emphasis) about Eagle Owls both within the Risk Assessment area and beyond. You will see from this assessment that we review the status, distribution and possible origins of the owl within the Risk Assessment area and that we also present information from published and peer reviewed sources on known interactions with other species.  

Q2.   Since we are constantly told that Eagle Owls are a threat to the survival of the few remaining Hen Harriers breeding in England, could you please provide us with any first-hand evidence of an Eagle Owl actually being seen killing a Hen Harrier in this country. 

Comment.  In this context I raised the subject of the much publicised Natural England/RSPB Press Release of 9 June reporting an alleged incident of an Eagle Owl being filmed “attacking a nesting female Hen Harrier” (sic) which resulted in Dr Tom Tew Chief Scientist for Natural England, proclaiming “Eagle Owls – a non-native species – are a recent arrival in Lancashire, following their probable escape from captivity (This of course, as usual, without any proof whatsoever).  The nest cam footage confirms suspicions that they are impacting on hen harrier breeding success”.  I requested either a copy of the footage or information as to where it could be viewed so that we could make our own assessment of what actually happened.

  • A.  DEFRA does not hold a copy of this: however, the authenticity of the video has been verified by Natural England and the  RSPB.

 Comment.   In other words, the man charged with making a considered decision on whether a cull is necessary, hasn’t even bothered to view what will undoubtedly be classed as crucial evidence of Hen Harrier persecution.  One is bound to ask “have any of the Non-native Risk Assessment Panel seen it? Similarly, Mike Toms who is responsible for the answers given in the Risk Assessment, and who wrote (18) “The species is a known predator of a wide range of birds and mammals, including a number of species of conservation concern …….. and will not tolerate other breeding raptors or owls within its breeding territory ………. More recent evidence has been recorded, for example the 2010 incident in Bowland, which was caught on film”.  Unfortunately for his credibility he then admits “I (personally) have not seen the footage, we (the BTO) do not have a copy of the footage, and the draft Risk Assessment was produced prior to this being filmed” – but despite this confession, then goes on to say “Mention of it is included in the final draft, produced earlier this autumn”.   Thus the two people most involved in any decision regarding a cull are both willing to accept whatever is written or claimed by others – apart from the first-hand observations of the fieldworkers most involved with the breeding Eagle Owls in Britain!  Both totally ignore the fact that the only successful breeding population of Hen Harriers in England is that on the UU Estate in Bowland – the very place where two pairs of breeding Eagle Owls are present. Furthermore, Peregrine, Merlin and Short-eared Owl are also nesting successfully in the same area.  At the North Cumbria nest where 2 Eagle Owlets fledged successfully in 2010, a Short-eared Owl reared young immediately behind the owl nest, and a Merlin raised 4 young only 400 yards from the front of the nest (J. Miles. pers. com.).  So much for ‘not tolerating’ other breeding raptors or owls. I asked Richard Benyon how he equates these facts with the answers given in the Risk Assessment and also asked him to give us the “evidence” he claims has been given to him by RSPB and BTO members “about the threat from Eagle Owls to other raptors” (sic). Needless to say, he chose to ignore both of these questions, so perhaps Messrs. Benyon and Toms would like to comment now? 

I am pleased to report that thanks to the kind cooperation of the RSPB and United Utilities I have finally been able to view the film footage of the Bowland harrier/Eagle Owl incident along with Jenny Thurston, Chair of the WOT Trustees.  We would like to thank Pete Wilson and Ian Grindy for this opportunity to see for ourselves, what actually happened.  We were also shown the camera equipment which recorded the events and can immediately refute the claim that the owl first landed on the camera for an ‘eye-ball to eye-ball’ stand-off with the female harrier before going onto the nest.  The camera was in fact ‘fixed’, focussing entirely on the nest itself, so was unable to film anything happening outside its immediate environs.  Furthermore the camera itself only measures a few centimetres long and wide and is far too small for an Eagle Owl to land on.  The camera is only activated when movement takes place, has an infra-red facility to enable it to record behaviour taking place in low light, and also records the exact time when film footage is taken. Contrary to the initial claims by Natural England and the RSPB that an Eagle Owl had been filmed attacking a nesting harrier, no such footage of an attack exists. 

What actually happened was that the harrier spent the early hours before dawn, incubating the eggs, sometimes awake and alert, and sometimes dozing.  In the early dawn the harrier suddenly leaves the nest and a minute later the heather abutting the nest is seen to shake and what is clearly an Eagle Owl’s legs appear in shot and stand over the eggs.  Given the clarity of the pictures, any suggestion that this bird could have been a Buzzard (unfeathered legs) is clearly ludicrous.  It was an Eagle Owl.

There was no evidence of the bird having ever worn leather anklets, and although it is hard to be sure given the heavy feathering of an Eagle Owl’s legs, there didn’t appear to be a ring present – thus ruling out the bird being an offspring of either the regular Bowland pair, or the former Yorkshire breeders, all of which were BTO ringed.  Given the size of the feet and the lack of falconry fittings, I am of the opinion that this bird was a genuine wild male.  This view is further strengthened by the fact that the owl makes no attempt to interfere with the eggs either with its feet or beak, and makes no attempt to incubate them.  Captive females will sometimes even try to incubate round egg-sized stones in such circumstances. Not so this bird. 

Having watched the footage very carefully, and having discussed it with Pete Wilson and Jenny Thurston,  I believe the owl, probably coming home to roost after a night’s hunting,  was attracted by the movement of the harriers head and went to investigate.  The harrier saw it coming and wisely departed hastily.  The owl, having landed on a well hidden flat area, decided to stay put for an hour and a half before finally leaving.  I again stress, there is no indication whatsoever of the owl actually attacking or chasing the harrier at any time.  Unfortunately, there was no microphone, so we are unable to say whether the harrier(s) stayed around to mob the owl as would be expected with this species, but neither is there any indication of the interloper ducking as one would expect in such circumstances.  Although it is claimed in the Natural England/RSPB/ media reports that the harrier was never seen again, this is not so.  We were told that one, maybe two harriers paid brief visits to the nest after the owl had left, but sadly the nest was ultimately deserted.  We must be objective and honest here.  Although the Eagle Owl did not attack or kill the harrier so far as we can make out, it did undoubtedly cause the failure of this particular nest and we must not claim otherwise.

A great deal has been made of this incident, but although sad, it is no more significant than the failure of another harrier nest where a Natural England-sanctioned photographic hide was erected too close to the nest – an incident which has raised no comment or admission by Natural England or the RSPB, nor media coverage! Also, the only reason that the Eagle Owl disturbance (not predation) has so much importance attached to it is because the on-going relentless persecution of Hen Harriers on grouse moors has prevented their recovery in England to such an extent that every failure is a disaster.  If the English Hen Harrier population was at its estimated carrying capacity of c. 232 breeding females, one nest failure would hardly be mentioned. In response to my question over this, Mr Benyon stated “ ………. Raptor persecution (including poisoning, egg theft, chick theft and nest disturbance/destruction with a focus on hen harrier, golden eagle, goshawk, red kite and white-tailed eagle) is currently a UK wildlife crime priority.  We therefore consider that an immediate UK wide tactical response is required to address hen harrier persecution”.  Fine words we totally agree with.  Now let us see some action!  We at the World Owl Trust call on Mr Benyon and what is claimed to be ‘the greenest Government ever’, to follow in the footsteps of Scottish Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham who is aiming to bring in a new amendment to the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill which will make landowners directly responsible and answerable for wildlife crimes committed by their employees – something many of us have been calling for in England for a long time.

Having clarified these points, I’m afraid I have to end with a chill warning and a plea for you to read the following very slowly and clearly.

My last query to Mr Benyon referred to the fact that under the terms of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 any Eagle Owls bred in the wild in Britain are classed as wild birds and as such are protected under the Act regardless of the provenance of their parents.  Furthermore, the Eagle Owl is protected under EU Birds Directive in Member States.

Mr Benyon agreed – but went on to say that the Wildlife & Countryside Act transposes the EC Birds Directive into English Law and as such any escaped or released captive birds would not be afforded this protection.  And now for the punch line – the very last sentence of all in his letter and the one which serves as a warning that we must not drop our guard, for the war is not yet won.  He says “Additionally, section 16 of the (W & C) Act provides powers for the appropriate authority to issue licences to derogate from these protections for certain purposes such as conservation’.  The warning bells are ringing loud and clear!

Read The Eagle Owl in Britain – Native or Alien? A report by The World Owl Trust.

Tony Warburton MBE,

Hon. President, World Owl Trust

Related Stories Eagle Owl:

Eagle Owl-Natural England’s Reply to Mrs Chrissie Harper’s Letter

Defra-Will a cull of UK Eagle Owls be approved?

Bowland Eagle Owls-A tragedy which should never have been allowed to happen.

Eagle Owl Debate Elevated into Higher Gear

Eagle Owls again-A Personal Perspective by John S. Armitage

The Bowland Eagle Owls- Protection or Manipulated Management?

Bowland Eagle Owls-Good News, Bad News.

Eagle Owls-A Presonal Perspective by Major Anthony Crease, Retd.

6 comments to Eagle Owl Cull – A reply from Richard Benyon M.P. to The President of The World Owl Trust

  • D. McLeod

    Interesting that Mike Toms of the BTO is considered an ‘expert’. Is this the same Mike Toms who failed his PHD on barn owls?

  • Anyone who has followed this saga from the very beginning is able to understand the sad political reality of what is going on here. Even Chris Packham has now given his support to the Eagle Owl by saying on Twitter yesterday “disappointing to see Eagle Owls being set up as scapegoats in respect of dwindling English Hen Harriers on the One Show. The report was fair and concluded well but to imply that Eagle Owls were even marginally likely to impact on the pathetic remnants of this persecuted population seemed lame in the extreme. We all know full well why there are no hen harriers in England and it’s nothing to do with owls”. Well said Chris.

    Should anyone be surprised at what NE and the RSPB are saying, let no one forget how the FERA risk assessment was so deceitfully initiated last year.

    I have to admit now having watched Andrew Farrar’s interview on the One Show and read Tony Warburton’s post this morning, the vigilantes lead by Steve Dudley (BOU), Mike Toms (BTO), followed by Natural England and RSPB, who I was just starting to trust a little bit especially after Mark Avery came to speak to us at our IOS meeting, it seems that they are all not singing from the same hymn sheet. In my opinion these interests have all colluded to ensure Richard Benyon MP, will support what these organisation are telling him.

    I would also refer to the inexcusable behaviour of Natural England and the RSPB this year when they agreed to allow a Television film crew to visit and film a Hen Harrier nest containing 6 eggs on the Bowland fells. Millions of viewers were then shown an interview with the presenter of “Inside Out” kneeling down beside the nest while the female Harrier flew above in distress. How long these four or five individuals stayed at the nest before the female was allowed to return is anyone’s guess. No one should have been surprised when several weeks later the RSPB accompanied a second film crew to the nest once again but discovered to their dismay that only 2 of the 6 eggs had hatched; what did they expect. To add insult to injury the nest was visited for a third time with a TV crew, this time to film the two chicks being fitted with some kind of radio tracking system. It’s a miracle that any harriers mange to survive in Bowland at all.

    It seems this wasn’t the only incident where a Harrier nest was treated with disrespect this year. Tony Warburton refers in his article to a Harrier nest being photographed stating that Natural England sanctioned the installation of a photographic hide which he claimed had been erected too close to the nest. It is significant this incident has raised no comment or admission by Natural England or the RSPB, nor media coverage even though after the eggs had hatched the nest failed!

    There have been a number of additional comments about this issue posted on the raptor politics web site which I found very enlightening, all questioning Natural England’s decision to issue a licence to permit this activity to go ahead when Harriers were on the verge of extinction in England. This is without doubt a very sad state of affairs and it would appear to me that the very people who are entrusted and paid by the public to protect our wildlife are doing just what they like with no thought for the welfare of any of it, the saying ” Empty vessels make most noise” springs to mind here.

  • paul williams

    Seems to me the only people who really care about our raptors and owls in Bowland are the ones who do their fieldwork with love, passion,discretion, responsibility, dedication and for FREE.

  • Paul, how I wish I lived nearer to Bowland, I would give my all to help protect and watch over these wonderful owls that mean so much to me, as you have all done, you have my respect and admiration.
    My wish is that one day I may be able to see these owls, it would be a dream come true for me.

  • paul williams

    Thank you Chrissie, and i promise you we will do it all again next year if or when we are called upon to do so.

  • paul williams

    Radio 4,9pm thursday 18th of november, Saving Species..Brett Westwood considers the conservation of alien species,highlighting the case of Eagle Owls,which are thought to have been introduced to the UK from scandinavia.