Sunday, April 8, 2012

Eagle Owl issues revisited!

Checking through various sources for information yesterday I came across the YouTube film below
(  )

The Notorious Eagle Owl

The title smacks of sensationalism and partisan opinion but, in its defence, the story is presented by a proponent and opponent of the issue  involved. Tony Warburton ( World Owl Trust ) presents an enthusiastic case on its behalf,  Tim Melling (RSPB ) similarly provides a case for its removal. Both are honest appraisals of declared positions, both of whom I would steadfastly defend  in their opinions and rights of expression.  However, there are odd sequences in the film that I feel are a bit "iffy" and detract from what , otherwise, would have been a very neutral assessment. Sadly the film was issued over a year ago (31.3.2011 ), but I must have missed it.

My concerns are that, all too often nowadays, we seek to promote our respective cases from a point of convenience and, on occasions, lose sight of the necessity to maintain a line of logic throughout our various arguments. Tony Warburton unashamedly and passionately defends the presence of the bird on the grounds of its magnificence and contribution to our avifauna and on the likelihood of its "natural" invasion from N. Europe via Shetland and Orkney into Scotland. I don't agree with this as my own feelings are that the birds have come over the North Sea from the Low Countries given its westwards extension in mainland Europe. I don't agree with Tim Melling either in that his assertion is that the North Sea presents a barrier that will deter the species. In a general defence I'd simply say that Short-eared Owls, Long-eared Owls and Rough-legged Buzzards all manage to "bridge" the North Sea to winter with us in the UK when necessary. However, all these are assertions, convenient assertions, and nothing more.

The RSPB's case rests on there being no evidence of the bird's residence in the UK within the last 10,000 years and that the presence of the birds is built on escapes from those in captivity, of which there are an appreciable number. Such an assertion is attractive , but not proved in any way. Equally, their concerns are that introducing a major predator at the top of the food chain is a threat to other native wildlife. Well, RSPB, much as I love you,  may I remind you of the support you provided towards the Natural England proposal to introduce White-tailed Eagles into East Anglia with all the potential threats that idea posed to iconic species on various reserves in that area! One could also harness the same argument in terms of the investment by the RSPB towards other major raptors in the UK.  I welcome all that, but let's be consistent.  Oh, and there's also the question of the Northern Goshawk and its provenance in the UK.  Let's be careful folks, and honest with ourselves.

So, is this opposition real concern or a matter of convenience?  One might easily surmise it might be the latter given the RSPB's quoted instances in the film of Eagle Owl predation on Hen Harrier in the Forest of Bowland, the only remaining regular stronghold of the latter species in England. Such predation has been hotly debated, if not rebutted completely by some, and the veracity of such claims must , therefore, be set aside until extremely clear evidence is made publicly available.  Such opposition is also somewhat emotive! What about the possibility of Eagle Owl presence in areas where Hen Harriers are absent and likely to remain so? C'mon, let's be up front and honest , folks, and keep things in perspective! Setting aside this one location where the two species currently co-exist, what about other areas where the main prey species is present  ( Rabbits )?.  Not the most revered of neighbours by some farmer hosts , it must be said. So might the attitude be different , one asks?

But from the outside , looking in, one could even become convinced politics might be at play given the film's images. The portrayal of Red Grouse amidst the snow, accompanying the RSPB commentary and mention of species preyed upon by Eagle Owls, might even be interpreted as a sop towards upland land managers, whose opposition to Eagle Owls has not entirely been mute nor disguised. No mention of the extent to which Eagle Owl preys upon Red Grouse is made incidentally. Such attempts at compromise, intended or otherwise, are likely to be ignored by the majority of those who appear to consider generally that all raptors should be eliminated.

Despite the RSPB's suggestion that Eagle Owls in the UK ought to be caught and placed in captivity the Environment Minister, Richard Benyon, decided the overall case for action was flawed and that no intervention was justified, although monitoring in future seasons would be undertaken. The barely disguised disappointment in the RSPB's comments in the aftermath on the quality of monitoring required is , perhaps, a little unnecessary and churlish. Personally, I still remain confused about the position the RSPB actually occupies! Towards the end of the above debate the opinions of Dr. Mark Avery ( then Director of Conservation , RSPB, now independent conservation campaigner ) appeared to concur with the position adopted by the Minister. So where does that leave us?

However, one major aspect emerges in my opinion. Should a marked bird from the Continent be recovered in the UK I feel it incumbent on the Government Ministry and the BOURC ( British Ornithologists Union Records Committee ) to accept the evidence without hesitation and accept with good grace that the species be "elevated" into being an accepted part of our avifauna and provided with the necessary protection under our wildlife laws.

In the meantime, which is currently, I feel the subject ought to left to the authorities involved so that a well formulated and well researched programme can be completed and then revealed.  Not one just based on opinion , but on a position based on fact, which includes an appraisal of the current European situation. Unfortunately some individuals and groups would still seek to continue to "dramatise" the situation and reveal general site details of some individual birds or pairs, no doubt seeking self aggrandisement in the process. That such actions certainly don't help the species, nor qualify as "protection",  is to be condemned given their obvious link to self promotion!  Whatever the timing , it needs to be accepted that the next time the subject arises the outcome of the review will not be decided on clamour but on facts!!

More importantly, the priority subject area at present is the problem of general raptor persecution, whatever the methods employed, to ensure the various laws relating to protection are being upheld. No compromises, no diversion, no egos and no inconsistencies! Old time conservation campaigning in action, clearly defined, openly explained and with robust promotion.

Having resolved that problem, and only then, diversions such as the Eagle Owl can then be properly addressed. Sadly, at the moment , not a lot on either subject is apparent!.


  1. Hi John, I had been under the impression that the view of RSPB was that of MA not TM whose views are those of the BOU.The BOU view cannot be sustained in that they agreed that all species recorded in the UK in a wild state since the last glaciation are native. Derek Yalden has published evidence that EO fits that case with sub fossil evidence, yet BOU still argue the non native status, a case of serious inconsistency. Harriers with or without EO predation continue to rear more than enough young in Bowland to maintain population the problem for them is winter persecution not EO predation.

  2. Thanks, Paul. Perhaps Tim not wearing his RSPB fleece would have kept me on track and, to be fair, mention was made of his being a member of BOURC.

    I couldn't agree with your sentiments more, but , hopefully, the matter will be properly resolved at some point in the future.

  3. "In a general defence I'd simply say that Short-eared Owls, Long-eared Owls and Rough-legged Buzzards all manage to "bridge" the North Sea to winter with us in the UK when necessary."

    A recent note in British Birds magazine (104: 544-546) gives an up to date summary of Eagle Owl status and movements. With over 5000 ringing recoveries examined, only one involves a significant sea crossing (of at least 48 km). Two European bird observatories (Helgoland and Utsira) seem ideally placed to record Eagle Owls attempting to cross the North Sea, but neither has recorded a single Eagle Owl in a combined total of over 200 years of observations.

    It may seem a reasonable assumption that if Short-eared and Long-eared Owls are happy to cross the North Sea, then Eagle Owls will do the same. However the evidence (ringing recoveries, radar and satellite tracking, bird observatory records) clearly indicates that Eagle Owls are relatively sedentary birds and are not migratory, irruptive or nomadic.