A New Killer to Rule the Skies
January 25, 2005
ANGIE BROWN - The Scotsman News
EXOTIC owls so large they can catch and kill a dog or small deer are being deliberately released into the wild by people who believe they should be introduced into Scotland.
Eagle owls, which grow to almost three feet tall, have been spotted across the country in areas including Edinburgh, Fife, the Borders, Stirling, Argyll, Morayshire and the Black Isle.
Some enthusiasts - those responsible for releasing them - believe the birds used to live in Scotland until they were wiped out by gamekeepers in the 19th Century. Experts say there is no evidence of this. Now ornithologists are concerned the "super-predators" will wipe out many native birds if they continue to be released in Scotland.
David Kelly, the Lothian recorder for the Scottish Ornithology Club, said people were able to release eagle owls because they are easy to breed in captivity and cheap to buy at around £80 each.
"There are people that feel quite strongly that the eagle owl was wiped out from Scotland at the same time the osprey and goshawk were exterminated," he said. "They may have lived here before the ice age more than 15,000 years ago, but the environment was different then.
"I am concerned they think it is a good idea to deliberately release them and am saddened when I see them or receive reports of sightings of them, for example in Balerno in Edinburgh just a few weeks ago.
"These people are misguided and don't seem to realise that if they spread and increase then they will be very dangerous to our native birds. They even eat other owls.
"You should never take captive birds and release them into the wild as not only is it illegal, but it upsets the native population of birds and animals."
He added that anyone sighting one of the large owls should report it to the authorities.
The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has warned that anyone caught setting the owls free faces a fine of up to £20,000.
Mike Flynn, SSPCA superintendent, said: "I heard an escaped eagle owl some years ago plucked a Yorkshire terrier from a street in Perth, so they can quite easily eat dogs.
"It is a clear offence to intentionally introduce any non-indigenous species into the wild under section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
"The International Union for Conservation and Nature decides whether to give a permit to release birds into the wild. They gave permission for ospreys to be re-introduced because they did use to live here before the gamekeepers wiped them out but I can't see them giving out a permit to do this with eagle owls, considering the damage they do."
Several varieties of eagle owl have been seen in Scotland including the Central Asian and Eurasian eagle owl - the largest of the owl species. Females can weigh as much as ten pounds and have a 5ft wing span.
Eurasian eagle owls are native to countries such as Russia. The Central Asian eagle owl is native to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and India.
Eagle owls hunt mostly at night. They can catch prey up to the size of foxes and young deer whilst hunting in the wild, but they also feed on rabbits, smaller mammals and birds in captivity. Experts say adult birds can be aggressive.
Keith Morton, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' species protection officer, said: "These birds are cheap to buy and easy to get hold of and there are quite a few now living wild in Scotland.
"They can easily grab a cat without too much trouble and are known to predate on peregrines at night on the nest.
"They don't belong here and there is no evidence of them living here in the post-glacial period. However, there is still this debate going, that they did live here, among some people. I would urge anyone who knows of anyone releasing eagle owls to contact me."
Duncan Orr-Ewing, RSPB head of policy, said: "They are very adaptable when released into the wild because they have quite a cosmopolitan diet, feeding on small deer or dogs and their favourite prey being hedgehogs.
"They shouldn't be released here."
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