Lock up your pets, killer owl on the loose

It could be a job for the Flying Squad, or perhaps The Bill.

Police in Wiltshire have warned pet owners to be on the look out for a dangerous giant owl which has escaped from its enclosure in the back garden of its owner's house.

The European eagle owl, which has a 2m (6ft) wingspan and is a metre tall, flew from its aviary in Lower Stratton, near Swindon, on Sunday evening. While the bird is unlikely to attack humans, it is said to be capable of hunting and killing animals such as cats and dogs if it becomes hungry enough.

The owl escaped when its owner, who does not want to be identified, opened the aviary door to feed it at about 9pm. The bird launched itself at him, he dodged out of its way – and the raptor flew off.

"It could try to carry off a cat or small dog," said a spokeswoman for Wiltshire Police, adding slightly more reassuringly: "As it has been bred in captivity, the owl is unlikely to attack humans."

The force asked for anyone who saw the bird to contact police "and we will send an appropriate team with the right sort of equipment to catch it".

European eagle owls are the largest in the world and are accomplished hunters, able to kill foxes and even small deer by crushing their skulls with their sharp and powerful talons. Their feathers are extremely soft, allowing them to glide silently and rapidly through the air before swooping down on unsuspecting prey.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) said that if a member of the public spotted the owl they should not attempt to catch it themselves, as it was a "large animal that will need specialist handling".

The escaped bird is described as speckled brown in colour, with dark orange eyes, long ear tufts and brown plumage. Its owner believes it will be frightened by its sudden experience of freedom and is probably taking refuge in a tree.

In December last year, European eagle owls were among a number of species to be added to a list of non-native species deemed to pose a threat to Britain's indigenous animals.

Although it is perfectly legal to keep the birds as pets, releasing them into the wild without a licence carries a maximum punishment of two years in jail and a £5,000 fine under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

However, a spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said that the owl's owner would not be liable for prosecution as he had released his pet by accident, and the Act did not come into effect until 3 April in any case.

It is not the first time one of the birds has gone missing. In 2003, a European eagle owl called Bobu vanished from its home in Pwllheli, north Wales, only to be discovered more than a year later by a farmer in Ruthin, 57 miles away. Bobu was reunited with his owner.

European eagle owls can weigh up to 9lb and live for 85 years in captivity. It is estimated that there may be 3,000 kept as pets in Britain, and there have been reports of pairs breeding in the wild after escaping their aviaries.