Wildlife: The Eagle Owl

A rare wild bird that should be protected or a dangerous interloper? Paul Hobson looks into the case for and against the charismatic eagle owl

Adding large predators to our countryside is a very contentious ‘hot’ topic with both birdwatchers and conservationists. Over the years we have seen a number of ‘introductions’ into the UK, often for the most spurious reasons. Little owls were released into the UK by Lord Lilford in the 1830s purely because he could, so he did! They are now firmly established and breeding freely and we even classify them as wild birds.

In the 21st century we are far more circumspect and the Countryside and Wildlife Act is very clear about introducing or releasing any wildlife into the British countryside. A fundamental requirement before a legal and proper introduction can even be considered is that the species was once a genuine wild animal.

In 1993 a gamekeeper showed a bird watcher a nest containing four large, cold, white eggs in the northern Peak District. This was the first known incidence of an eagle owl breeding in the wild. It would certainly have been the rarest breeding bird in Britain that year. ‘Brilliant, amazing, superb,’ you might say. ‘We must protect it at all costs.’ But oddly that isn’t what happened. In fact the nest had been deserted but the birds were still around. Since then there have been a number of reports of eagle owls nesting: the two most well known are a pair in the Forest of Bowland and two in North Yorkshire that were the subject of a BBC TV documentary. This latter pair raised 23 owls between 1997 and 2003 when the female was eventually shot. The Bowland pair hit the news when they ‘buzzed’ walkers – particularly those with dogs – who strayed too close to their nest. It did seem that there were genuine concerns for human safety. The following year the owls nested further away from footpaths and the situation didn’t seem so bad.

It is estimated that there are 40 free living eagle owls in the UK at the moment. Only a handful of these are breeding that we know of. However, the controversy about them rages on. The key question is: Has the eagle owl ever existed in Britain as a wild bird? If the answer to this is ‘No’, then the law cannot stop anyone controlling them, i.e. shooting them, as they are not wild birds. If the answer is ‘Yes’, then they are our rarest breeding owl and in need of protection, not extermination.

Which is the correct reply? Many people think that eagle owls lived freely in the UK until the mid 1800s and then were exterminated alongside other raptors like goshawks. However, some avian researchers strongly contest this assumption. First, there is no folklore in the UK about eagle owls, which seems odd for such a huge and charismatic bird. Second, there are only sporadic records of them over the last 200 years and all these references point to the birds being either an odd vagrant from Europe or one that has escaped from captivity.

Our nearest source of wild eagle owls is Scandinavia and oil rigs situated in the North Sea report any vagrant birds that land on their comparative safety as they pass. Although long-eared and short-eared owls are regularly seen – both of which are fairly common in Britain – eagle owls have never been reported.

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Did eagle owls ever occur in the wild in the UK? Often wildlife archaeologists answer this question from bones found in caves once inhabited by humans. One of the best records to date is actually of bones found at Demon’s Dale cave, near Ashford in the Water. So it seems fairly likely that eagle owls lived in Britain up to 10,000 years ago but probably have never been here since as genuine breeding wild birds.

Until recently, when a law was passed banning the importation of wild birds, eagle owls were regularly imported into the UK. They have been kept since the mid 1800s and are still common in bird of prey collections or with falconers. It is estimated that at present over 3,000 exist in captivity, where they can be bred easily. Over a 30-year period 73 birds that were reported as escaped weren’t recaptured and it’s believed there were many more not reported. So it seems likely that recent records are of birds that have been either accidentally or deliberately released.

In late 2010, after conducting a risk assessment, the Government made an announcement that eagle owls would not be culled. They stated that the risk to native wildlife is small but they would continue to monitor the situation.

So why is there still a problem? The recent situation arises from evidence that eagle owls will attack hen harriers – a naturally wild bird of prey that is on the list of those most threatened. The eagle owls in the forest of Bowland were filmed attacking a female hen harrier, which then deserted her nest, and some years ago there was evidence that this pair had killed a female hen harrier. Possibly they saw it as a rival predator rather than prey – the pair that nested in the Peak in 1993 fed on mountain hares, rabbits, hedgehogs, red grouse and pheasants. Certainly they are large enough to be able to tackle easily small deer, foxes, cats and small dogs.

Eagle owls are huge and impressive birds. To some they are a predator too far, to others they signify the return of a truly awe-inspiring native. Either way, the eagle (owl) has certainly landed!

Eagle Owl fact file

- Eagle owls are native across Europe ranging from southern Spain to   Scandinavia

- They have ear tufts, like long-eared owls but these are not real ears, just feathers that stick up

- They have probably never bred as wild birds in Britain for over 10,000 years   

- Eagle owls are unlikely to naturally colonise Britain because they don’t like flying over large bodies of water and are naturally sedentary

- They have a wing span of over six feet, with amazingly piercing, orange eyes. They are the third largest bird of prey in Britain with only golden and  sea eagles being larger

- Britain has a lot of suitable habitat for eagle owls such as moorlands with small cliff faces where they can breed