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Thursday 18th December, 2014

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Hawk & Owl Trust Member’s Conference

During the weekend of 14 – 16 October, we were proud to host the Hawk & Owl Trust’s Member’s Conference at Muncaster, attended by some 50 delegates and the first time the Conference had been held in the North of England.

Following an introduction to Muncaster and the World Owl Trust, HOT Director Linda Bennett gave a stirring talk, setting out the importance of the HOT’s newly purchased 138 acre Shapwick Moor Nature Reserve, an SSSI and Ramsar Site. This is a fine example of ‘Big Area Conservation’, linking together Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve (Natural England), Shapwick RSPB Reserve and Shapwick Moor Reserve as one vast protected area, specially managed for wildlife and the plan is to return the Reserve into traditionally-managed wet permanent grassland which will transform the reserve into a haven for species such as Barn and Short-eared Owls, Kestrels and Buzzards, Water Vole and Otter, Shrill Carder Bee and Marsh Fritillary Butterfly and many other forms of wildlife.

New HOT Chairman Prof. John Edwards gave an interesting review of the impact of rodenticides on populations of birds of prey and owls and the possible effect of global warming. John pointed out that there would inevitably be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as a result of global warming, one winner undoubtedly being the Hobby (now 2,500 breeding pairs in the UK) thanks to an increase in its insect prey, especially dragonflies. Peregrines too, are more common now than ever before after the banning of organo-chlorine pesticides. Disease is often overlooked as an important factor in population changes. John finished by reminding his audience that £4m was needed for the management of the HOT’s new Fylingdales Moor Reserve in North Yorkshire which will be managed to restore ‘Grouse Moor’ without the shooting. Hopefully this will result in breeding Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls plus many other moorland species.

On Saturday, delegates were given the choice of three tours. The first of these was a tour of the World Owl Centre aviaries, including the ‘off-view’ Breeding Ground and Wildlife Hospital (led by David Armitage); the second a visit with Sue Thurley to the Home Farm Project with an opportunity to meet Alastair MacIntosh, the farm manager. Lastly, I led a walk through the Muncaster woodland to the Deer Park where the group enjoyed extensive views over the Eskmeals and Ravenglass Dunes Reserves, the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man, and the West Cumbrian coastal plain. Everyone enjoyed their respective tours immensely and were hugely impressed by our owl collection and unmatchable site.

The afternoon session took the form of a series of talks on the HOT ‘Community Owl Project’ (Chris Sperring, HOT Conservation Officer); ‘Conservation Work by the World Owl Trust’ (Sue Thurley; WOT UK Conservation Officer); ‘Hen Harrier Research’ (Andrew Dobson/Andrew Heath); ‘Sculthorpe Moor Reserve’ (Nigel Middleton, HOT Conservation Officer – Norfolk); and a ‘lively’ debate on ‘The Arrival of the Eagle Owl as a breeding species in Britain’.

The Community Owl Project is an important link with the zoo world (it is sponsored by Bristol Zoo); Chris said “if you start something with somebody, don’t abandon them before you have finished the task”.

Sue described her first months as the WOT‘s UK Conservation Officer, which had unfortunately coincided with what appears to be the worst ever national Barn Owl breeding season following a Short-tailed Vole crash! Due to the limited time she had been with the Trust, Sue had concentrated on the 67 sites which had been consistently monitored during the last three years. Sadly, the number of breeding pairs was down by 50% and not all of these were unsuccessful in producing young. Some nests were only being used by individuals for roosting.

Andrew Dobson described his work on Hen Harriers in the Peak District. He had discovered that most Hen Harriers wintering in England had come from Scandinavia. Unfortunately Hen Harrier conservation is still complicated due to the on-going hostility of Grouse Moor owners. Andrew Heath had acted as Warden for breeding Hen Harriers in the Peak District area and was convinced that ‘mutual liaison’ and ‘finding a compromise’ are needed.

Nigel Middleton demonstrated exactly why the Sculthorpe Moor Reserve has achieved so much success during its short existence–enthusiasm and team commitment. Nigel stated very strongly that if funding is required from outside agencies, then the general public‘s involvement must be included in any management plans put forward. Nigel stressed that today‘s reserve management should be aimed at enhancing ‘overall’ biodiversity rather than being selective for individual species, no matter how rare the latter might be. He also reminded his audience that volunteers are priceless and their input must always be respected and acknowledged.

The Eagle Owl Debate commenced with an update on the current situation in the UK. and put the question “Is the Eagle Owl a returning ‘native’ or an introduced ‘alien’””?

It will come as no surprise to WOT members that this question produced highly polarized views. At the moment the jury is still out – so watch this space!

Following the Conference dinner our guest speaker, John Miles, former RSPB Warden for Geltsdale Reserve in North Cumbria, and now running his own wildlife tour company ‘Miles and Miles of Countryside’, gave an enjoyable, relaxed lecture on upland bird and habitat management learned from practical ‘hands-on’ experience over many years.

Sunday started with a talk by HOT Education Officer Leanne Thomas, now based at Sculthorpe. Entitled ‘The Trust working with young people’, this talk highlighted the modern-day lack of involvement between today’s youngsters and the natural world.

The HOT’s AGM followed. After this a splendid buffet lunch sent our guests home in good humour, and some of those heading south had the perfect ending to a perfect weekend – the sighting of a superb male Hen Harrier hunting on the slopes of Corney Fell just minutes from Muncaster. What a finale, what a weekend, and what a nice way to spend time with like-minded friends and colleagues.

I cannot end this report without thanking all the Muncaster staff for the part they played in making the Conference such a success. I wish to give special thanks to all the WOT staff who worked so hard to ensure the Conference was a success. There is no doubt whatsoever that many of our guests who came with pre-conceived ideas of what the World Owl Trust and its Breeding Centre were all about, went home with much changed perceptions – and many have vowed to return. Muncaster has worked its magic once again!

Tony Warburton

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