Largest owls in the world threaten British birds


Several pairs of eagle owls, the largest owls in the world, are now breeding in the wild in Britain, according to a new study.

But it is unlikely they will ever be considered British birds as they escaped from a large pool of birds kept in captivity.

With its prominent ear tufts, 6ft wingspan and its ability to kill birds as large as herons and animals as big as roe deer, the eagle owl is one of the most remarkable birds in Europe, nesting from Spain in the south to Russia in the north, but has always been absent from Britain.

However, in the past 15 years, several pairs of the birds have begun to nest in different parts of England, according to a review of the eagle owl's status in Britain published in the journal British Birds.

Beginning with a nest found in the Derbyshire Peak District in 1993, there have also been successful or attempted nesting in North Yorkshire; in the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire; and at an undisclosed site in southern England.

The North Yorkshire pair raised 23 owls between 1997 and 2005. The Lancashire pair hit the headlines in May last year when they began attacking walkers, especially walkers with dogs, who took a footpath near their nest. This year, according to the British Birds study, the birds moved "to a less accessible site elsewhere in the Forest of Bowland ... laying three eggs and rearing three chicks".

However, the eagle owl is unlikely to be admitted to the official list of British birds which is maintained by the British Ornithologists Union (BOU), according to the study by Tim Melling, secretary of the BOU's records committee; Steve Dudley, its administrator; and Paul Doherty. This is because a review of all the historical evidence indicates that eagle owls have not bred naturally in Britain since the "land bridge" between Britain and the continent disappeared about 9,000 years ago when sea levels rose after the end of the last ice age – possibly because the birds do not like flying over extensive stretches of water.

Previous records of eagle owls found or shot in Britain in the past four centuries are now all thought to refer to captive-bred escapes, as the bird is very widely kept, especially for falconry. The study estimates there may be up to 3,000 eagle owls currently kept in captivity in Britain.

"The situation with the eagle owl in Britain is a difficult one," said Mark Avery, director of conservation for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). "On the one hand, these are fantastic creatures. On the other hand, they are not British birds, and, as is the case with all introduced species, we do not know what impact they may have on our native fauna."

The eagle owl was a very different case from species such as the red kite or the white-tailed eagle, which have been successfully reintroduced to areas where they had previously bred, but had been persecuted to extinction, he said. "It's not that the eagle owl hasn't bred here for decades, or even centuries – it hasn't bred here for many thousands of years, so reintroducing it is simply not part of our conservation thinking," he added.

"One of the problems is that this bird is a top predator which can eat lots of things, and we do no know which parts of our native fauna it would pick on for its prey. So it would be better if people who own captive eagle owls did not let them escape, because we don't want any nasty surprises."

Nobody knows if the eagle owls breeding in Britain may be able to establish a self-sustaining population in the wild. It is thought unlikely – unless the population is boosted with further escapes from captivity or deliberate releases. Releasing a non-native species into the wild without authorisation is a criminal offence.

Size matters

*With its 6ft wingspan, and a body length of nearly 2ft 6in, the eagle owl is bigger than all other British birds of prey except for the golden eagle and the white-tailed eagle. It is twice the size of the tawny owl and the barn owl. The only other land bird to compare with it in size in Britain would probably be the great bustard, which died out nearly 200 years ago. To find a comparison one would have to look at water birds, such as the mute swan, the heron, or the crane.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
Life and Style
food + drink
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial IT Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: Commercial IT Solicitor - London We h...

Business Analyst / Project Manager - Financial Services

£40000 - £45000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: One of the mos...

Lead Business Analyst - Banking - London - £585

£525 - £585 per day: Orgtel: Lead Business Analyst - Investment Banking - Lond...

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home