Articles Eagle Owls in the Forest of Bowland


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Eagle Owl: Dunsop Bridge, Lancashire (photo: Liz Cornish).

Security measures introduced after Eagle Owls were found to be nesting in a wild corner of northern England were aimed at protecting people as well as the birds. In fact it was in the interests of public safety that Lancashire County Council, which had already erected warning signs, closed a right of way after reports of the parent birds swooping at dog-walkers using the moorland path near Dunsop Bridge in the Forest of Bowland.

"The problem is that the path runs between the nest site and the regular perches of the adult birds perch and they regard people using it as a potential threat to their three young", explained Nick Osbourne, the council's countryside officer.

"They seemed to take particular exception to people with dogs. This was the case with six incidents about which I heard. One, I understand, resulted in someone receiving hospital treatment for a minor injury."

He pointed out that anyone realising an attack was imminent could avert it through arm-waving but there was always the danger of being caught unawares. The prospect of being whacked unexpectedly from behind by 2kg of bird zooming down the hillside on its 6ft wingspan was daunting indeed.

Even invoking emergency right-of-way closure powers on Lancashire Police advice did not entirely resolve the problem. At least one dog was reported to have come under attack subsequently; it had a lucky escape considering Birds of the Western Palearctic says Eagle Owl prey in Europe and Asia includes mammals as big as young deer and wild boar.

As the site is three miles from the nearest public car park, under normal circumstances comparatively few people stroll into this area, which is part of a major upland expanse owned by the water company, United Utilities (with which the RSPB has a partnership arrangement to care for various species associated with this habitat, including most of England's abysmally few nesting Hen Harriers).

However, once news broke that the owls were nesting, visitor numbers inevitably took an upward swing and an element of crowd control was considered necessary. BirdGuides played its part by giving detailed guidance about where to watch the birds, adding: "Police are monitoring the behaviour of visitors and anyone found crossing the fence...risks arrest for disturbance."

Eagle Owl: Dunsop Bridge, Lancashire (photo: John Dickenson).

Such steps to prevent any possible disturbance of the rearing of the three young owls by a pair of birds regarded officially as "non-native" may have been modest compared to the safeguards laid on for a vulnerable native Schedule 1 species in Category A of the British List, but they were not without critics - from within the birding community.

One argument advanced was that all bird protection resources in the area ought to be focused on the likes of Hen Harrier - which could, theoretically, face an extra hazard with Eagle Owls at large in the Forest of Bowland. Studies of Bubo bubo in countries where it occurs naturally have found raptors and owls included in the extensive list of prey.

Fortunately, no such problem is known to have arisen in Lancashire so far and, in the meantime, these Eagle Owls - although officially "aliens" - were technically covered by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Once their nesting became public knowledge, and an element of conflict and a possibility of disturbance arose, efforts to look after them were considered necessary - a course which does have legal foundations, although the situation is rather complicated.

Dr Tim Melling, the RSPB's North West conservation officer, explained how an Eagle Owl known to have escaped from captivity and flying free in the UK countryside is not covered by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. However, any young reared in the wild are protected under the EU Birds Directive, which applies throughout the European Union.

As it happens, one of the Bowland pair involved in an unsuccessful nesting attempt last year did show an obvious sign of being a fugitive - a leather strip attached to one of its legs. However, no such recent bondage indication is reported to be evident this year so the possibility that both parents have been wild-bred cannot be eliminated.

But even if they were known to be cage escapees, it would be an offence to harm them or cause disturbance at the nest site - as that would impact on their dependent wild-bred young, which are certainly protected. So once there was a possibility of disruption from people wanting to see the owls - or maybe of danger from anyone who felt driven to harm them - the relevant authorities felt they had a responsibility to take some appropriate action.

By coincidence, Dr Melling is also secretary of the records committee of the British Ornithologists' Union, the body responsible for maintaining the nation's wild birds list. Eagle Owl used to be on the list's Category B, consisting of species recorded in an "apparently natural state" before December 31st, 1949, but not since. However, in 1996 - three years before Dr Melling's appointment - it was dropped after the committee reviewed 90 reports of the species between 1684 and the late 1800s.

Justifying this decision, the committee declared: "There is no evidence that this species has occurred in the wild state in Britain and Ireland for over 200 years." It was believed at least some may have been misidentified but even when this was not the case it was not possible to rule out the possibility of escapes or deliberate releases. This was because Eagle Owls were known to have been imported and kept in captivity in Britain since at least the 17th century.

Dr Melling supports that view and in fact goes further. He commented: "In fact there is no evidence that they have occurred in Britain since it became an island - no longer connected to the continent via a land bridge - after the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago."

According to The History of the Birds of Britain by Dr Colin Harrison, fossil records indicated Eagle Owls occurred in what is now Britain "through most of the Ice Age and possibly just afterwards." However, it was "difficult to account for its subsequent absence." The species is certainly not absent from today's considerably more peopled British countryside. That is undoubtedly linked to frequent reports of birds escaping from captivity or being set free by people no longer prepared to cope with what might have started out as status-symbol pets.

Some within the birding community go further and argue that this is possibly also due to birds migrating from northern Europe. This is not just the view of a "lunatic fringe" - one of our most respected bird of prey authorities, Roy Dennis, believes the species is well able to fly across the North Sea and that one day there will be a ringing recovery to provide the hard evidence that that has yet to emerge.

Whatever the source, it does seem possible there are more pairs nesting in Britain than very the few instances recorded. After nesting attempts in Moray and Nairn in 1984 and 1985, resulting in the fledging of a single chick, the only consistent efforts figuring in the Non-Native Birds Breeding in the UK report published British Birds involved the pair that was on Ministry of Defence land in North Yorkshire. Over nine years they reared around 20 young - the sequence ending when the female died from gunshot wounds during the 2005-06 winter.

Over this period, their offspring - all ringed - dispersed widely. One of four reared in 2004 crashed fatally into power lines 135 miles away in Shropshire next year. Another was found dead in Peeblesshire, southern Scotland, the following winter. However, others may have survived long enough to reach maturity and find partners from the stock of fugitive birds that appears to be widely scattered about the land.

This could have provided the basis of the small breeding population that some wildlife enthusiasts believe is becoming established. However, considering the attention the Bowland birds drew to their presence, despite being in a comparatively remote area, it's hard to imagine this being on more than a very small scale, otherwise we would surely know about it.

Readers can see an earlier article discussing whether breeding Eagle Owls in the UK should be encouraged by clicking here.

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Lancashire Lancashire
Eagle Owl Eagle Owl

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The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (18)

There are 'apparently' 3 pairs of Eagle Owl nesting in Lancashire including a pair quite near to this pair in Whitendale. Over recent years something like 2,000 applications to keep captive Eagle Owls in the UK have been made to the government. They are not native and should not be allowed to prosper in our countryside. Of course there'll be a lengthy argument for and against the owls and before we know it they'll be established and impossible to eradicate just like the Ruddy Duck. I quite agree that any 'resources' in Bowland should be directed to the conservation of Hen Harriers and other threatened moorland species but the RSPB just loves a publicity opportunity doesn't it.
   name witheld, 04/06/07 11:03Report inappropriate post Report 
Having travelled to New Zealand and seen the extreme lengths that they have been to to salvage native species from introduced aliens, I can only concur that these Owls should not be encouraged in the wild. Also, with the negative attitude some farmers/ gamekeepers towards birds of prey, the hen harriers etc of the area should worry for their future as they are persecuted for the damage done by errant Eagle Owls.
   Ralph Darvill, 04/06/07 11:49Report inappropriate post Report 
It seems to me that Eagle Owls (and several other species the BOU considers) are guilty until proven innocent. Realistically, the chances of recovering a foreign ringed Eagle Owl is remote. Likewise with wildfowl such as Marbled Duck and Baikal Teal. These species are very unlikely to be ever added to the British list under the BOUs current way of thinking. The previous comment saying 'they are not native' is just one persons opinion and not fact. Some undoubtably have a captive origin and...more more
   Mark Newsome, 04/06/07 12:15Report inappropriate post Report 
From the tone of some of the comments it appears that birds of prey are to be more worried about predation by Eagle Owl than the illegal acts of some gamekeepers, try telling that to those involved in Hen Harrier & Peregrine protection
   Richard Barnes, 05/06/07 09:21Report inappropriate post Report 
As well as being cynical, Name Withheld's comment "the RSPB just loves a publicity opportunity doesn't it", is inaccurate. The RSPB has not sought publicity about the Eagle Owls - none of the agencies, especially the police, have. They are only mentioned in the article because of approaches I made to them. Brian Unwin
   Brian Unwin, 05/06/07 11:28Report inappropriate post Report 
Mr Unwin - the RSPB were responsible for the news of these Eagle Owls getting out to the general public by way of a press release despite local birders keeping quiet. Is it something to do with the fact that there is the RSPB Bowland Festival on at the moment and the publicity generated by the Eagle Owls will help profit margins. Maybe I am a little cynical about the RSPB as I have been very disappointed over the years ( as have many others in this part of the world ) with their lack of action with regards the persecution of Hen Harriers and other raptors in Bowland. And for your information the RSPB does love a publicity opportunity - some of their best paid staff work in their huge publicity machine.
   Name witheld, 05/06/07 11:52Report inappropriate post Report 
I had a single eagle owl in the fields and woods around my house for 3 years up to 2005. I used to keep an eye on it's prey, and though it was mostly rabbits and jackdaws, it did once take and eat a sparrowhawk. This birds was so tame it was undoubtedly an escape. The bird was seen and heard daily, then vanished Christmas 05.
   Dave H., 06/06/07 11:39Report inappropriate post Report 
I think a sense of proportion is needed. The Eagle Owl is a Eurasian species and can hardly be compared with the introduction of aliens into New Zealand that has been isolated for millions of years. Eagle Owls happily live in Europe without destroying similar avifauna to the UK. To exaggerate the effect of raptors plays into the shooting hunting brigade (the ones doing the real damage). It worries me many birders remain so quiet about the landed gentry and commercial shoots whilst native species such as the Hen Harrier are being wiped out. They are desperately trying to get the raptor numbers down with scare stories about sparrowhawks etc to get back some twee notion of stewardship in the countryside filled with pheasants and french partridge (a non native) in fir plantations, trimmed hedges and weed free 100ha fields and City (crooks) gents and social climbers clad in tweed.
   Craig Howat, 07/06/07 11:25Report inappropriate post Report 
I remain open minded about whether or not Eagle Owls should be re(?)-introduced into the UK. But before such a decision is taken on this there needs to be a proper debate based on sound scientific evidence. Should it be decided to go ahead then a properly planned, managed, monitored and financed project should be established to work fully in line with the IUCN re-introduction criteria - a robust set of standards established long ago by objective, forward-thinking and knowledgable...more more
   Ecologist, 07/06/07 21:06Report inappropriate post Report 
I think we have to be objective and asses impact. If it shown they have a serious impact then control would be necessary as it was with Ruddy Ducks. But the natural history of the UK is one of human habitat modification and introductions and its reality is the sum of these. Or has the ecologist not noticed the wild woods gone some time ago.
   Craig Howat, 07/06/07 22:37Report inappropriate post Report 
Only looking at one photo of an adult, this looks like Bengal Eagle Owl as do the chicks! Are there any better photos?
   David Beveridge, 08/06/07 08:38Report inappropriate post Report 
With respect Craig, may I suggest you do some homework such as re-reading my post, the IUCN criteria and the literature on the ecology of Eagle Owls. Sometimes it's far better to objectively predict impacts rather than waiting for them to happen and then trying to clean up the mess. To cite the Ruddy Duck as a sound example to follow is irresponsible in the extreme. Literally millions of pounds have been spent on the attempt to eradicate it, with absolutely no guarantee of success. In addition, the whole sorry Ruddy Duck issue has caused deep divisions within the conservation community, which has directly and negatively impacted on the abilities of those embroiled in the debate to work together to deliver positive conservation benefits. If the IUCN guidelines had been in place and followed at the time, all that wasted effort, money and energy could have been utilised so much more effectively in constructive rather than destructive conservation.
   Ecologist, 08/06/07 13:12Report inappropriate post Report 
I think you have a case and these birds could be taken back into captivity pretty easily at the moment. I know the IUCN guidelines and do feel they should be followed if allowed eg beaver but this is not a re-introduction it is what you do with a species when you have it. The UK natural history is the summation of human led introductions and modifications and its going on at a vast pace. Not all the 2000+ plant introductions are Japanese Knotweed. So its not black and white and should be...more more
   Craig Howat, 08/06/07 23:51Report inappropriate post Report 
IF the birds were wild birds that came naturally does that mean that every other migrant[that has arrived naturally] that has not bred in britain should be given a bad name or culled before they get the chance to do so
   david mulligan, 09/06/07 18:48Report inappropriate post Report 
Given the potential changes that climate change will have on the migration and territories of birds, is it not likely that these birds will move their territory to include the UK anyway. Note the changes in the birds we see already. It wasn't that many years ago that Egret's were a rarity...
   malcolm, 09/06/07 19:21Report inappropriate post Report 
Wasn't it an eagle owl nest that was found last year in Lancs by a 'keeper who reported it to the RSPB; the RSPB chap visited the nest, was upset when he saw the dead hen harriers in the nest and took the eagle owl eggs out of the nest claiming the nest was abandoned; the eggs were later tested and found to have been viable after all? Or am I thinking of something different?
   RK-yoohoo, 26/07/07 19:45Report inappropriate post Report 
can't understand some of the comments about Eagle Owls these quite magnificent birds are living and breeding in the wild and are not likely to interfere with any other species as their numbers are so low. If the story of an RSPB official robbing the nest is true I find it quite astonishing and I would certainly consider my future membership of the organisation.
   raptor, 07/09/07 19:07Report inappropriate post Report 
Im sorry but the eagle owl lives in Scandinavia and Belgium and it s able to fly 350 km from these places to France and Italy crossing the north sea and English channel is nothing in comparison. Any animal that can fly to Britain of its own accord on a regular basis and breed is British. The eagle owl could be a great pest controller as it eats corvids rabbits and small deer.
   Callum Tottles, 08/04/13 10:58Report inappropriate post Report 

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