Country & Coast: Sympathies divided for bird preparing to nest once more

Eagle owls are thought to be at risk of persecution by both gamekeepers and conservationists, says Roger Ratcliffe.
Eagle owls are thought to be at risk of persecution by both gamekeepers and conservationists, says Roger Ratcliffe.
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A decade ago “The Eagle Owl Has Landed” made a sensational headline when it was revealed the world’s largest owl had built a nest in North Yorkshire.

However, any illegal egg collectors who may have found the news exciting stood no chance of getting near the breeding site unless they had been trained by the SAS. That’s because a pair of these 2ft-high owls - always a star attraction at displays of birds of prey - had taken up residence in a military exercise area to the west of Catterick Garrison.

Hot on the heels of that news came reports of the bird attempting to nest in Nidderdale as well as at sites in Cumbria and Derbyshire, and for a time it seemed eagle owls were colonising the UK from their strongholds in Scandinavia, Germany and Spain. But those hopes were dashed when senior ornithologists in the UK dismissed the birds as merely escapees from captivity and conferred on them the status of alien species.

Now I’m told the birds are again preparing to nest in an undisclosed location on the fringes of North Yorkshire, where a core breeding population has now developed. However, some conservationists are unenthusiastic, their chief allegation being that eagle owls don’t co-exist with indigenous birds of prey like peregrines and common buzzards, and kill tawny owls and our smallest raptor, the merlin.

Some birdwatchers like Terry Pickford, a member of a Raptor Protection Group in the north, want their nesting attempts to succeed but believe the birds are persecuted not only by gamekeepers on grouse moors but also by conservationists who accuse them of being a threat to England’s rarest nesting bird of prey, the hen harrier. Terry emphasises that eagle owls are legally protected in the UK and believes the birds are treated unfairly.

A few years back, he says, a pair of eagle owls nested in the North Pennines close to a breeding pair of hen harriers, but mysteriously disappeared. And in the Forest of Bowland last spring the birds vanished from a nest in which eggs had been laid at the same time hen harriers were breeding.

Quite how many birds there are in the UK is unknown. Few people are around at night to hear the owl’s haunting double-call of “hu-ut-oo-lu” in its habitat of remote uplands and coniferous forests.

An RSPB officer told me that if there was a significant increase in eagle owl numbers it might be wise to “nip the colonisation in the bud” before they became a problem for our own birds of prey. A comparison was made with the American mink, which escaped from fur farms and almost wiped out our native water vole. Others prefer to compare it with the little owl, which was brought to the UK in Victorian times and stigmatised as the scourge of game birds. But in the 1930s a study found they fed on beetles and craneflies, and it was finally embraced as a British bird.