THE EAGLE OWL - FRIEND OR FOE?
According to a study by the British Ornithologists Union, the contentious European eagle owl has begun to breed in the wild in the United Kingdom. Bigger than all other British birds of prey - except for the golden and the white-tailed eagle - it is considered to be the largest owl in existence. Unfortunately this also means that it comes in at twice the size of our largest native owl species - the tawny owl and the barn owl.
Although records confirming the existence of Eagle Owls in the UK date back as far as 400 years they are believed to refer only to captive-bred escapes. Although a truly impressive creature, the fact remains that they are not native to this country even though they are wide spread across most of northern Europe. However some experts believe that that they had bred naturally in Britain before the "land bridge" between Britain and the continent disappeared about 9,000 years ago when sea levels rose after the end of the last ice age.
According to a review of the eagle owl's status for the British Birds journal, the first sign of their emergence came in 1993 when a nest was found in the Peak District.
With a 6ft wingspan, and a body length of nearly 2 ½ ft , the Eagle owl is quite capable of bring down prey as large as our native heron or even as big as roe deer. The problem is that as a top predator it has the opportunity and ability to eat from a wide range of prey. With many of our native species entering the endangered list, the question that is causing the greatest consern is what are these new predators likely to choose as their staple food source?
Mark Avery, director of conservation for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had this to say on the matter.
'... The eagle owl was a very different case from species such as the red kite or the white-tailed eagle, which have been successfully reintroduced to areas where they had previously bred, but had been persecuted to extinction. It's not that the eagle owl hasn't bred here for decades, or even centuries – it hasn't bred here for many thousands of years, so reintroducing it is simply not part of our conservation thinking...'
"...One of the problems is that this bird is a top predator which can eat lots of things, and we do no know which parts of our native fauna it would pick on for its prey. So it would be better if people who own captive eagle owls did not let them escape, because we don't want any nasty surprises..."
Nobody knows if the current small group of eagle owls breeding in Britain are likely to maintain a self-sustaining population . Current thinking belives that it is unlikely unless the existing population is boosted with further escapes from captivity. Currently, the eagle owl is listed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act which prohibits the introduction into the wild of any animal which does not normally live or visit Britain. Any one caught doing so can face up to two years in jail and a £5,000 fine.
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