The Short eared Owl in Britain

Short-eared owl-1

The Short-eared Owl is one of the most persecuted of the owls in Britain, because they breed mainly on upland heather moorland, bringing them into conflict with Red Grouse moorland managers and their gamekeepers. There is a massive wide range in expected breeding numbers from 200+ – 2500+ in a season which are dependent on good ‘vole years’; one moorland region in Cumbria which is well monitored showed this.  In 2014  there were 22 pairs falling in 2015 to 16 pairs produced chicks fledgling as early as in May, and interestingly these nests would have contained eggs when moorland was being burnt. In 2016 then vole numbers were low only a single pair recorded, but in 2017 a record year for voles  27+ pairs were located.

With new evidence showing food/prey is more important than nesting cover, especially snow, this  year is thought to have been a ‘vole year’ because of such a mild winter allowing grasses [main food] to grow well, supporting a winter population of voles ready for the spring. This throws into contention the ‘4 year cycle rule’ often quoted by the experts when food is available, but as yet no conservation group have attempted to manage grassland or moorland to try and retain consistent steady numbers of voles as food for owls or harriers year on year!
It has been well documented by several upland workers detailing the amount of wide scale persecution against Short-eared Owls on managed Red Grouse moors. The worst example was when RSPB staff observed gamekeepers on one estate systematically crisscrossing the moor at night shooting at will when a large population of owls were noted, only to find no more owls existed after this event!
Other workers have been quoted –
In the North York Moors –  where I have worked for 30 years or so. Some moors were always favored more than others by short-eared owls, but certainly in the 1980’s birds were regularly recorded, if breeding was not actually confirmed. However, in recent times, these birds have become much scarcer and the reason is pretty obvious. The last breeding success I know of, was on an un-keepered moor adjacent to a grouse moor – this was back in 2012. The most recent attempt occurred this season [2015] on another moor but off the same estate. The outcome still makes my blood boil. I suspect that a brood, again on the same estate back in 2006, was taken out too. I’m afraid you just cannot trust any keeper at all with anything likely to look cross-eyed at a grouse!’
Yorkshire Dales – ‘They will probably be breeding very productively on the non Red Grouse moors here. I heavily suspect persecution on Red Grouse moors.’

Northern England
It is a good vole year in most places in the north this year (2017), although we have as usual few SEOs taking advantage, they are hated here as much as harriers. Harriers ought to be all over Northern England this year taking advantage too but are clearly not.’
Forest of Bowland – The SEO is in serious decline throughout Bowland. Still breeds on the United Utilities estate, but in reduced number. On most of the other Bowland estates, eradicated almost entirely, along with the Hen Harrier and Peregrine. An estimate of less than 10 pairs of Short eared Owls are on UU in 2017 even in a ‘Vole Year’
Even Derek Ratcliffe was aware of the this persecution issue on the Langholm moors [Galloway and the Borders New Naturalist Page 263]. After a keeper had been sacked the man gave evidence of mass killings, stating that of 300 birds of prey killed in most years, a majority being Sparrowhawks and owls. Given the area referred to in the book was a Red Grouse moor where these killing occurred, the only owl it could have been were Short-eared Owls. Another ex keeper quoted to me that in Speyside Short eared Owls were shot at will.
There is the famous incident which took place at Geltsdale in the 1990’s, where beaters driving the Red Grouse towards the butts saw a Short-eared Owl shot by one of the guns. A second bird was looking likely to get shot but the beaters stopped driving and ran towards the guns shouting and saved the bird. The gun man was banned for life from shooting at Geltsdale [but not prosecuted!]. The RSPB now own the shooting rights so that ban will continue as I suspect, no shooting will take place on the RSPB’s Geltsdale reserve in the future!
In Northumberland in 2016 a gamekeeper was observed trying to locate a Short-eared Owl’s nest close to a minor road. When the keeper realised his actions were being watched he walked back to his quad bike driving off. The observer returned to the spot the next day only to find the nest destroyed and the birds from this nest missing!
It is not just in the breeding season when owls are removed from moorland. Most shoots ‘clean up’ before a shoot in August so that the Red Grouse can fly to the butts where they are shot without being disturbed by any raptor. Keepers don’t want a bad shoot as they are able pocket so much cash in hand at this time of the year from wealthy shooters. These tax free back handers can run to £10,000’s, with estates still claiming they don’t encourage their keepers to remove protected species!
This is no different to ‘drug’ money, but some police officers who support estates are known to turn a blind eye, being given free shooting, especially when it comes to the ‘keeper’s shoots’ often at the end of the seasons. One keeper was caught with £4000 in cash stashed in a tin in cupboard; when police questioned the keeper thinking it was the possibly the proceeds of drug money, no action was taken when he told the police how he had acquired the cash.
At a recent meeting in Manchester a local policeman went to look at applying for a ‘wildlife officers’ job. He told me the majority of the other police officers  making their applications were involved in game shooting, so if appointed into one of these jobs they would take the side of the estate over a poor Hen Harrier or Short-eared Owl! Isn’t there a clear conflict of interest here? How can a wildlife office in winter be seen helping estates to prevent poaching, and then in summer go to the same estate and say their Short-eared Owls, together with Hen Harriers and Peregrines have gone missing!
The BTO Scotland are now satellite tracking Short-eared Owls [2017 onwards], so like Hen Harriers we will be able to see if they go missing on Red Grouse moors in the future. Sadly even Kestrels that have been tracked in Scotland [http://www.riddle-kestrel. com/SatelliteTagging/index.htm ] have gone missing on Red Grouse moors showing it is not just Hen Harriers that are being targeted!
New evidence from the recent Langholm Moor Demonstration project shows that by monitoring vole numbers it should be able to predict numbers of Short-eared Owls that should be on a moor due their ability to home into areas with good numbers of voles. The continued removal of especially ground predators on Red Grouse moors act as a magnet for voles burgeoning in numbers, hence drawing in birds of prey, especially the Short -eared Owl.
Red Grouse moor estates that work within the law should be well monitored to establish this happening. Recent evidence apparently shows the Castle Bolton estate between Leyburn & Reeth turning over a new leaf following the appointment of new management, and that large numbers of Short-eared Owls are now present on this estate. I’m told this is one of the only grouse moors in the Dales that have them!
Another question never answered is whether these owls are actually ours or arrive from across the North Sea in the autumn. Large numbers have been counted arriving but less observed leaving our shores in the spring. So is this the result of persecution removing foreign birds and having an effect on the overseas populations? We know many Hen Harriers do come here in winter from across the north seas, on the other hand there is little evidence that these birds stay and bred. This springs arrival of a male Pallid Harrier in the Forest of Bowland might suggest that foreign Hen Harriers may well be adding to our breeding birds.
Hopefully the BTO will finally decide to publish interesting work from their satellite tracking of Short-eared Owls, and by so doing ‘unlocking the door’ on a bird we need to know so much more about but don’t.

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