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The Short eared Owl in Britain

Short eared Owls are the most persecuted of the owls in Britain for breeding on mainly upland areas of Britain especially where they come into conflict of Red Grouse moors. There is a massive wide range in expected breeding numbers from 200 – 2000 in a year all dependant on ‘vole years’. One area of Cumbria well monitored showed this. 2014 showed 22 pairs falling to 16 but fledging in May! And then 1 pair [no voles] and then a record year of 27+ pairs in 2017.

With new evidence showing food is more important than cover especially snow, the 2017 year is thought to have been a ‘vole year’ because of such a mild winter allowing grasses [main food] to grow well keeping a winter population ready for the spring. This throws out the ‘4 year cycle’ often quoted by experts as 2 - 3 years are shown when food is available but as yet no conservation group have managed land to try and keep a steady flow of voles as food for owls or harriers!

It has been well documented by several upland workers about the amount of persecution against Short eared Owls. The worst example was RSPB staff watching the game keepers on one estate systematically crossing the moor at night shooting at will when a large population of owls were noted only to find no more existed after this event! Other workers have been quoted –

in the North York Moors - ‘I have worked for 30 years or so. Some moors were always favoured more than others but certainly in the 1980's birds were regularly recorded if breeding was not actually confirmed. However, in recent times, these birds have become much scarcer and the reason is pretty obvious. The last breeding success I know of was on an un-keepered moor adjacent to a grouse moor - this was back in 2012. The most recent attempt occurred this season [2015] on another moor but of the same estate. The outcome still makes my blood boil. I suspect that a brood again on the same estate back in 2006 was taken out too. I'm afraid you just cannot trust any keeper at all with anything likely to look cross-eyed at a grouse!’

Yorkshire Dales - ‘They will probably be breeding very productively on the non Red Grouse moors here. I heavily suspect persecution on Red Grouse moors.’

‘It is a good vole year in most places in the north this year, although we have as usual few SEOs taking advantage, they are hated here as much as harriers. Harriers ought to be all over N England this year [2017] taking advantage too but are clearly not.’

Even Derek Ratcliffe was aware of the this persecution on the Langholm moors [Galloway and the Borders New Naturalist Page 263] when a keeper was sacked and gave evidence of mass killing stating that of 300 birds of prey killed in most years many were Sparrowhawks and owls. Given it was a Red Grouse moor the only owls it could be were Short eared Owls. Another ex keeper quoted to me that in Speyside Short eared Owls were shot at will.

There is the famous incident here at Geltsdale in the 1990s where beaters driving the Red Grouse towards the butts saw a Short eared Owl shot by one of the guns. A second bird was looking likely to get shot but the beaters stopped driving and ran towards the guns shouting and saved the bird. The gun man was banned from shooting at Geltsdale ever again [but not prosecuted!]. The RSPB now own the shooting rights so that ban will continue as I suspect, no shooting will take place in the future!

In Northumberland in 2016 a game keeper was watched trying to find a Short eared Owl’s nest close to a minor road. When he saw he was being watched he walked back to his quod bike. The observer returned to the spot the next day only to find the nest destroyed and the birds missing!

It is not just in the breeding season when owls are removed. Most shoots ‘clean up’ before a shoot in August so that the Red Grouse can fly to the butts without being disturbed. Keepers don’t want a bad shoot as they pocket so much cash at this time of the year. This tax free money can run to £10,000s as estates still claim they don’t encourage their keepers to remove protected species!

This is no different to ‘drug’ money but the police are very much in favour of many of these estates with officers getting free shooting especially when it comes to the ‘keeper’s shoots’ often at the end of the seasons. One keeper was caught with £4000 in cash with police thinking it was drug money until he told them where he got the cash!

At a recent meeting in Manchester a local policeman went to look at applying for a ‘wildlife officers’ job. He told me the majority of the other police there were involved in game shooting so if appointed into one of these jobs they would take the side of the estate over a poor harrier or Short eared Owl! How can a wildlife office in winter be helping estates protect them from poaching and then in summer go to the same estate and say their Short eared Owls have gone missing!

So far no monograph has ever appeared regarding Short eared Owl. In the 2014 ‘Owls’ in the New naturalist series persecution was hardly mentioned and even when someone tried to write an article about them in a monthly Bird Watching magazine [Birdwatch] they missed the fact that there was heavy persecution on this species. So why is there so little information for this species in writing!

The BTO Scotland are now satellite tracking Short eared Owls [2017 onwards] so like Hen Harriers you will be able to see if they go missing on Red Grouse moors. Sadly even Kestrels that have been tracked in Scotland [ ] have gone missing on Red Grouse moors showing it is not just Hen Harriers that are targeted!

New evidence from the recent Langholm Moor Demonstration project shows that by monitoring vole numbers you should be able to predict the amount of Short eared Owls that should be on a moor due to the Short eared Owl’s ability to home into areas with good numbers of voles. The continues removal of especially ground predators on Red Grouse moors act as a magnet for voles to explode in numbers hence drawing the birds of prey and especially the Short eared Owl.

Red Grouse moors that are trying to keep to the law should be well monitored to see this happening with recent evidence that apparently the Castle Bolton estate between Leyburn & Reeth have turned over a new leaf under new management, and that large numbers of Short eared Owls are present there. I'm told this is one of the only grouse moors in the Dales that have them!

Another question never answered is whether these owls are actually ours or come across the North Sea in the autumn. Large numbers have been counted arriving but less leaving in the spring, So is this persecution removing foreign birds and having an effect on the over seas populations? We know many Hen Harriers do come here in winter but have little evidence that they have stayed and bred but recent Pallid Harriers seem to suggest that foreign Hen Harriers may well be adding to our breeding birds.

Hopefully the BTO will finally come up with some interesting work from their satellite tracking so by ‘un locking the door’ on a bird we need to know so much more about.

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