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When is a raptor native and non-native?

Are a pair of eagle owls nesting slap bang in the middle of the RSPB’s flagship hen harrier reserve? Could this explain why the reserve — at Geltsdale, Cumbria — has such a poor record of producing fledged hen harriers in recent years? Indeed, could it help to explain why Geltsdale rated so badly in a Natural England survey of moorland birds? (Or do other factors, such as the Geltsdale warden who allegedly encourages his springer spaniel to hoover around on the moor during peak hatching time, play a role?)

Of course, it may be just a mere rumour, or even wishful thinking. It’s just too delightful to be true, isn’t it? Is it really possible that great boggle-eyed owls, the size of flying beer kegs and festooned with deadly pointy bits, are sweeping over the RSPB’s prime moorland reserve like pterodactyls in Jurassic Park, reducing ground nesting birds to loose shreds of protein? Moreover, if it is true, what is the RSPB going to do about it? Apply for a licence to cull the eagle owls? I think we should be told.

No foreigners here, please

For some reason, these eagle owls were delisted as native British species, despite the fact that they have been breeding here for decades — indeed, the records go back to the 1800s. The theory is that they were once native to the UK, after the last ice age, but then died out and, more recently, feral birds that have escaped from collections have started breeding in the wild.

This whole thing seems just a little bit too convenient to me. We know that goshawks were basically reintroduced (without a licence) and yet they are counted as native. And as for the much-vaunted, white-tailed sea eagle, there is very little evidence that they were a breeding species (as opposed to visitors) in lowland England for hundreds of years, yet the bird brigade is adamant that these sea eagles are a native species, and used this as justification for the Suffolk release project (which has, incidentally, just been binned).

So why was the eagle owl chucked off the British list and derided as an alien species? Could it be that the protectionist establishment simply cannot bear to admit that a native raptor could ever be a problem? Is it politically more convenient to call a species “alien” if you face some hard choices about how to control it?

A symbiotic relationship?

Speaking of politics, I see that Natural England’s media statement about the eagle owl/hen harrier incident at Bowland, published on the agency’s website, carries an exhortation to join the RSPB. The statement seems to have been issued jointly with the RSPB — which is pushing the concept of neutrality a bit anyway, I reckon — but the real crime against impartiality is contained in the notes. There, featured prominently, is a puff for the RSPB, including these words: The RSPB speaks out for birds and wildlife, tackling the problems that threaten our environment. Nature is amazing — help us keep it that way. Click here to join today.

Does anybody else think it is a bit odd to find a Government agency using a publicly funded website to aid the sales efforts of a private sector membership organisation? Does anybody else feel it is particularly close to the bone in this case, given that Natural England is the Government’s wildlife adviser and the RSPB is actively lobbying it on certain issues?

Perhaps I am being over-sensitive. Maybe, to cut costs, the new Government has quietly decided to let lobby groups sponsor quangos, and the contra-deal is free advertising on departmental websites. If we look closely enough, we might find the banks are getting free mortgage ads in the Chancellor’s budget statement. Or how about a new prison reform Bill sponsored by the Association of Burglary Professionals?