Recently, it has been reported that a pair of eagle owls are preparing to nest in North Yorkshire and this has once again opened up the controversy surrounding one of the world’s largest owls. There is inconclusive evidence as to whether eagle owls are a native species in the UK, there are between 12 and 40 pairs currently breeding in the UK but it is uncertain how many of these have escaped from captivity and how many have naturally colonised here.
Their re-emergence as a breeding population in the UK has been met with deep concern from the RSPB who have compared the owls to the American mink, an introduced species that all but wiped out our native water voles. It was suggested by an RSPB officer that the re-establishment of the eagle owl should be “nipped in the bud” but many have judged this to be an unfair assessment.
There is fear that the return of the eagle owl could have devastating effects on hen harrier conservation programmes, as eagle owls are known to be partial to hen harrier and will also kill raptors and other owls nesting too close to their own nest sites, including the native tawny owl. However, studies have shown that eagle owls mostly eat rodents and rabbits, particularly in the UK where their main food source seems to be rabbits. Eagle owls may even be able to play an important part in the control of species, often considered as pests, such as wood pigeon and corvids.
Eagle owl reintroduction programmes across Scandinavia, Germany, France and several other European countries have been widely acclaimed for their success in re-establishing a top predator that had undergone significant declines across Europe as a result of human persecution. In Germany it has been noted that the eagle owls have had adverse effects on the breeding success of buzzard and goshawk which means that any recovery programme in the UK should be treated with caution so as not to create a sudden population explosion, as has happened with red kite.
Despite all the odds, persecution, bioaccumulation of pesticides, collisions with vehicles and power lines, the eagle owl seems to be winning. Native or not, perhaps with the right management we can find a way to promote the population of these spectacular birds without drastic impacts on already established birds of prey.
(Sources: Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, 2016; The Yorkshire Post, 2016)