Wildlife: Secrets of a muted hooter

You seldom see long-eared owls - which is why one man's quest to find out more about Britain's most secretive bird of prey turned into a feat of endurance, writes Matthew Brace

A deep hoot in the night - like air blowing over the top of a glass bottle - signals the presence of one of Britain's rarest and most beautiful owls. Secretive and strictly nocturnal, the long-eared owl (asio otus) is at home in woods near rough grassland. Its reclusive nature and excellent camouflage make it devilishly hard to find, which has meant previous studies of this species have been difficult - and results limited.

However, recent research by Robert Williams of the University of East Anglia in Norwich has revealed important new information about this elusive bird of prey. Dr Williams has found more evidence to suggest that Britain has a self-supporting resident population but also fears that the bird is suffering a decline in numbers.

A self-supporting resident population has been suspected by scientists and ornithologists but Dr Williams's evidence is the strongest yet to prove it exists. "There have been records of long-eared owls here for years. All the places in East Anglia ending in Hoo were named after the call of the male long-eared owl," Dr Williams said. "It was not known whether all the winter migrants returned to Scandinavia in the spring or whether some stayed here to breed."

Many long-eared owls still make that perilous journey each spring from Britain to their northern breeding grounds. Their numbers vary from year to year, with peaks every three to five years. But Dr Williams discovered that those owls living in southern England, where prey is more consistent and reliable, seem to be resident year-round.

"If it is a particularly poor year for prey or an especially harsh winter, the resident birds will moderate their breeding and maybe not even breed at all," he said.

During his PhD study, Dr Williams also discovered that long-eared owls have lower juvenile and adult survival rates than tawny owls, which are doing well at the moment, and that the UK population was dwindling, with the major causes of death being predation, starvation and bad weather, as well as increasing numbers being killed on the road.

"They do seem to have declined this century. We don't know what their natural level is because they are so secretive, but the Victorian naturalists talked about them as if they were much more widespread than they are today.

"The naturalist C B Ticehurst said they were more common in parts of the south than the tawny owl," Dr Williams added. "As the tawny has increased in numbers recently, the long-eared owl has appeared to decline. We still don't know if there is a connection between the two. We also know about the decline from local county bird reports. They don't breed at all in Cornwall and there are very few pairs in the south west of England. It is estimated there are between 1,000 and 10,000 pairs in the UK now. My guess would be around 2,000 pairs."

The chief reason behind the decline is the problem affecting many bird species - agricultural and land-use changes which have meant the destruction of the blackthorn scrub and fenland of the long-eared owl's natural habitat. The owl is a vole specialist and relies on this rough grassland for hunting.

Dr Williams is keen to draw attention to the plight of the species and possibly get it registered as a bird of concern. During his three-year study he found 24 nests with eggs (indicating a breeding pair) and went to extraordinary lengths to get those results, spending nine months in the wilds of Kielder Forest in Northumbria, living owl hours, with only one trip home every four weeks, and braving an icy Force Six wind on the Old Hall Marshes in Essex.

"Radio tracking long-eared owls is really difficult because their range is so great," Dr Williams explained. "They are not like tawny owls, which fly from perch to perch to hunt for food, they hunt while flying over open grassland. The only way to follow them is to run after them, so I spent many nights running across wild moorland trying to keep them in range. I fell down pits and holes and into bogs. I was stopped by the police several times when farmers called in to say they'd seen this character running across the moors adjacent to their land in the middle of the night."

He also had some close encounters with his subjects. While he was ringing chicks in a nest, one female long-eared owl made fly-pasts near the nest, clipping the back of his head with her wings, trying to scare him off.

But despite the hardships, he brought home results which will go some way in helping us to understand this most elusive of birds and to ensure its survival.

To find out more about long-eared owls, contact the Hawk and Owl Trust's education centre on 01494 876262 and look out for a book, `The Long-eared Owl' by Derrick Scott (Hawk and Owl Trust, pounds 17.95).

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
people'Interview of the year' no letdown
Wayne Rooney
sportBut which sporting Brit beats him to top spot in Sunday Times Rich List?
Maxine Peake at home in front of a poster for Keeping Rosy
Arts and Entertainment
Boys in blue: Peter Firth and (right) Kit Harington in Spooks
filmHow well will Spooks make the leap from the small to the big screen?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Royal fans covered with Union Jacks and royal memorabilia wait for Kate, Duchess of Cambridge to go into the Lindo wing at St Mary's Hospital to give birth to her second child in London, Friday, April 24, 2015.
peopleLive updates in the wait for Duchess of Cambridge's second child
Arsène Wenger (left) and Jose Mourinho have to be separated by the fourth official, Jon Moss, during last October’s Premier League match at Stamford Bridge
Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windo...

Guru Careers: Product Training Specialist / Software Trainer

£25 - 32,500K (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Produ...

Recruitment Genius: Unqualified NVQ Assessors - Health, Social Care & Management

£16000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road