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Sharpshooter on the RSPB’s stance regarding eagle owls

Nobody can say that the current Government lacks courage. Having taken steps down the route towards a badger cull, the Coalition is now examining evidence that a species of raptor may need to be culled. The raptor in question is the eagle owl. I like eagle owls. Their presence adds a bit of spice to our local wildlife. But the RSPB is concerned that they might be scoffi ng hen harriers and other superbly efficient flying fundraisers, and we can?t have that, can we? Yet, what exactly can you do when one highly protected raptor starts shredding other highly protected raptors? It?s all most inconvenient for the ?natural balance? brigade.

After being prodded by the RSPB, DEFRA commissioned a risk assessment of the eagle owl situation. This document has recently been published, and its initial fi ndings have caused a mass outbreak of indignation among the hard-core raptorphile community. Feathers are flying and talons are being sharpened. The RSPB is desperately trying to argue that eagle owls are not native, but many raptor enthusiasts disagree. It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I relay a selection of some of the more interesting findings (re-ordered for clarity):

The species [i.e. eagle owl] is a known predator of a wide range of birds and mammals, including a number of species of conservation concern (eg pine marten, capercaillie and various raptors and owls) and will not tolerate other breeding raptors within its breeding territory.

The establishment of eagle owls in Northern Germany during the 1980s resulted in a significant decline in goshawk territories, with the owls taking over pre-existing goshawk territories. No goshawks were able to breed within 500m of an eagle owl nest and beyond this distance were only able to breed successfully when eagle owl densities were themselves low.

In terms of potential impacts one can look at a number of species. For example, 10 per cent of the Scottish hen harrier population is associated with scrub/brash and conifer plantations ? the latter being a habitat that is increasingly used by the species ? and this component of the population may be at risk from eagle owls should they become established across the hen harrier range. Suspected hen harrier predation by eagle owls in North West England in 2007 and film footage of eagle owls attacking a sitting hen harrier was recorded in June 2010 at Bowland.

Based on the current pattern of breeding records, at least 17 pairs breeding, environmental impacts are likely to be most pronounced in North England, central England and Southern Scotland over the short term. These areas (plus potentially Northern Scotland and Wales) may see the most significant environmental impacts longer term of the population increase significantly, because these are important areas for those other breeding species likely to suffer from predation or decreased productivity.

Containment is likely to be effective only through a programme of controlled culling. Even with this, there is the likelihood of continuing escapes and deliberate releases, with the potential for individuals from these to disperse beyond the risk-assessment area.

The sedentary nature and territoriality of breeding pairs, together with the nature of the territorial behaviour (calling from song posts) should allow control of [the eagle owl] at a stage when its population is at a low level. For this strategy to work, it would be essential to gain support from the birdwatching community and get them to report the presence of territorial birds. Control will be needed to be sustained, allowing for the fact that continued releases and accidental escapes are likely to continue over time.

So, are we really going to see birdwatchers recruited to report errant eagle owls, so that the giant raptors can be sniped by the usual ?highly trained marksmen?? And will this owl-culling be openly supported ? indeed, demanded ? by the RSPB? If so, how will the RSPB be able to defend licence applications for the control of problem buzzards?