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Thursday 18th December, 2014

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Eagle Owls In Britain - Where Does The Trust Stand?

Eurasian Eagle Owl - Bubo bubo

No doubt many of you will have seen the marvellous film (Natural World, BBC 2, November 16 & 20), which gave the news of the return of the European Eagle Owl as a breeder in the UK. The more observant amongst you will also have registered the fact that the Trust was involved in the making of this film, so no doubt you will be wondering what our stance is over this controversial event. I am sure you will not be surprised to learn that opinions are much divided over whether the birds currently breeding and being seen in ever-increasing numbers in Britain, are the ‘genuine article’ or simply birds which have been deliberately released or ‘lost’/escaped from captivity.
I summarize the WOT’s position as follows:

  1. There is fossil evidence, first-hand observations of birds in the wild, plus anecdotal and a few confirmed reports (eg. Galloway, Invernesshire, and Sutherland) of Eagle Owls breeding in Britain before the Yorkshire pair, plus many instances of undoubted ‘escaped’ or deliberately released birds in England. The old literature gives many examples of birds being ‘taken’ (ie. ‘shot’) in a wide range of counties, as well as many ‘seen’.
  2. The WOT has never released European Eagle Owls into the wild in the UK.
  3. While we formerly considered any Eagle Owls seen or breeding in England as ‘suspect’, we have always believed that genuine wild birds were present and breeding in very small numbers in parts of Scotland. Our work in Finland demonstrated the difficulty of locating this species in the wild, due to the large size of their territories and their ability to stay hidden (as was clearly shown in the film). In the light of the evidence presented in the film, we now consider that any Eagle Owl reports must in future be treated with an open mind unless there is clear and indisputable evidence (e.g. unnatural tameness, presence of jesses or rings, etc.) that these may be ex-captive individuals.
  4. Rather than it being incumbent on ‘believers’ to prove that observed Eagle Owls are genuine wild individuals, as in the past, we now believe it is for the ‘unbelievers’ to prove they aren’t!
  5. While we accept that the Eagle Owl is a formidable predator well capable of taking a wide range of prey – including other owls and diurnal birds of prey - it also takes a great many corvids, rats and in particular, rabbits which Man usually regards as vermin. We regard predation by any predator as ‘natural’, even when the victim is something we ‘like’.
  6. We regard the confirmation of the Eagle Owl as a resident breeder in Britain as an exciting event on a par with the reintroduction of the White-tailed Sea Eagle and reinforcement of the Red Kite population, and would draw attention to the fact that no-one complains about the Little Owl - which was a full introduction to Britain. We suggest that the opposition to the Eagle Owl is perhaps down to its size and expertise as a predator rather than being based on scientific fact or logic.
  7. We believe the British Ornithologists Union should now add it to the official list of British birds and that the species should receive the same protection as any other bird of prey or owl, perhaps even being placed on Schedule 1.
  8. The above remarks do not apply to any other species or subspecies of Eagle Owl (such as the commonly kept Indian (Bengal) Eagle Owl (Bubo bengalensis) or Turkmenian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo turcomanus) which should be recaptured if seen in a ‘wild’ state in the UK.
Tony Warburton

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