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Sunday 23rd November, 2014

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Feathers Fly Over UK Eagle Owls Once Again!

Following the disgraceful January 2006 shooting of the female European eagle owl which bred for ten years and successfully reared no less than 23 young in North Yorkshire (see Newsletters 32 & 33), we were delighted to learn that another pair attempted to breed in the Bowland Fells of Lancashire in the spring of that year. Sadly the attempt failed, 3 eggs being laid but failing to hatch. However, what was intriguing was that this new site was only some 50 miles from the North Yorkshire breeding site as the Eagle Owl flies. The question therefore arose – could this pair be two of the 23 young raised in Yorkshire? We already knew that one youngster had come to grief after being electrocuted by power lines in Shropshire, and the remains of a second have since been recovered in Peebles, Scotland. However, this leaves 21 unaccounted for – not withstanding any of the other unrelated naturally occurring individuals some of us believe have existed in Scotland for many years. Claims that one of the Bowland birds was wearing leather jesses seemed to suggest that this bird at least was a deliberate release or escapee (something which the ‘doubters’ claim is the case for all UK sightings!), but this claim has not been substantiated and the suggestion is that this was nothing more than a pathetic attempt to discredit this latest breeding attempt. As the above-mentioned shooting and some of the inane comments made by so-called ‘experts’ at the time confirm, not everybody is as thrilled as us at the possibility of seeing this magnificent owl breeding in the British countryside!

Rather surprisingly, given that it is by far the most likely place for Eagle Owls to live and breed, some of the most vehement (and dare I say again, inane!) comments emanate from Scotland. Herewith a brief sample: -

‘Killer’owls spotted in Scotland. “Killer owls which can attack dogs and deer and are threatening other wildlife have been spotted in Scotland. The eagle owls, which can grow 3ft tall and are not native to Scotland, have been sighted in Edinburgh, Moray and the Black Isle. There are fears the owls will greatly reduce native birds and animals”. BBC News Scotland. 7/10/2006.

“I heard an escaped eagle owl some years ago plucked a Yorkshire terrier from a street in Perth, so they can quite easily eat dogs”. Mike Flynn, The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Rollo the Eagle Owl
Image courtesy Mal and Jan Moore

“Evidence that the eagle owls are native to Britain and were here in the first place is weak and tenuous. If we introduce species that are not native then it can cause problems with biodiversity and it is illegal to release the birds into the wild. They are great birds in the right place, but that place is not Scotland”. Duncan Orr-Ewing, RSPB. (one is tempted to ask then, why Scandinavia and European countries which are home to Eagle Owls, are not totally devoid of biodiversity! For the record, the Yorkshire pair specialized in rabbits and jackdaws, and kestrels, buzzards and tawny owls all nested successfully in the near vicinity of the Eagle Owl nest. Nor were the numerous lambs molested. Major Tony Crease, pers. com.). TW.

Now for the good news! The Bowland Eagle Owls have succeeded in rearing three young this year and these are now flying. Indeed, the ‘jungle drums’ are suggesting that there are in fact no less than three pairs in this area, though I can only confirm the pair with the youngsters at this point. What is even better is that you can now go and see these dramatic birds for yourself as long as you are up to a 3 mile walk and another three miles back! They are located on United Utilities land just north of Dunsop Bridge half a mile south of Whitendale Farm – whose enlightened tenant I am glad to say, welcomes their presence, as does the equally enlightened gamekeeper whose beat this is. The Grid Reference is SD659542 or 660543 depending who you listen to! Park your car at Dunsop Bridge post office and head north along a road with the river on your left. Don’t go over the bridge. Continue along the road as it goes uphill and look for a ‘Footpath Closed’ sign (erected to safeguard lunatic dog walkers who insist on taking ‘Rover’ with them to see the birds – so please don’t let the Trust down by going down this path or taking your own dog with you). Instead, at this sign, turn right along a metalled road to Whitendale Farm (I understand they do B.& B. if you want to make a real go of it!) and look for posts 67A & 68A. Stop at a stream and a fence (don’t cross these, otherwise you could find yourself arrested for disturbing the birds!!!). The site should now be obvious opposite you on a hillside.
Watch and wait – and be patient! And enjoy a fantastic sight you’ll never forget.

I am sure that at this juncture many of you will be holding up your hands in horror that I have given away the location of the nest. However, I do so for a good reason. This news has well and truly hit the birding world ‘hot-line’ and also attracted the attention of the media. As a result the location is now public knowledge and visitor numbers to Dunsop Bridge have swelled enormously with many birdwatchers anxious to see the birds for themselves. The police and wardens have therefore had to exert a degree of crowd control – which happily, so far safeguards the birds from those who wish them ill. Which leads me to a rather sad point. The ‘jungle drums’ have also made it known that someone has put out a contract to destroy the birds, so the more eyes which are around, the better protected the birds will be. So if you do decide to go for a look at them, can I urge you to keep an eye open for anyone acting suspiciously, and if you do see something which concerns you (e.g. guns or buckets of poisoned bait), don’t hesitate to inform the police immediately. Don’t wait for something to happen before you act. By acting quickly, you could prevent one of these fantastic owls sharing the same fate as the unfortunate Yorkshire female. As I have said, not everyone wishes them well, more’s the pity.

Given the interest these birds have created in a remote area of Lancashire it goes without saying that local traders, garages, pubs, hotels and bed & breakfast establishments, etc. have benefited enormously – just as the Lake District Ospreys have done the same for our own area, and the Red Kites in Central Wales. The fact is that charismatic birds are big business, and I will watch with interest to see how long it takes for the RSPB (who are currently amongst the most vociferous Eagle Owl ‘antis’) to mount a viewing (i.e. a ‘recruitment’) point if the birds remain unmolested and continue to breed! I know there are concerns for the Bowland Hen Harriers, but as yet there have been no reports of problems between the two species.

For more information and a chance to peruse the ‘arguments’, log on to Eagle Owls in the Forest of Bowland. (Good photographs of the adults and young too!) at www.birdguides.com.

Tony Warburton
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