Eagle Owl In Kent, KOS

08th October 2012
Owls of derision
The occurrence of Eagle Owls in Kent
The recent discovery of an Eagle Owl roosting on the ninth floor of a building in the middle of Ashford has provoked a flurry of interest in the local newspapers if not in birders, twitchers and listers. After all, you can’t tick it, can you? It is bound to be an escape from captivity.
Well, probably, but as Gershwin very wisely pointed out, ‘It ain’t necessarily so!’
While there is no evidence of vagrancy of continental Eagle Owls to Britain, there is a small but growing feral breeding population derived from escaped birds, and in this respect its status is comparable to that of Northern Goshawk two decades or so ago.
At the time of the first Atlas ending in 1972 there were fewer than 35 breeding pairs of Goshawks in Britain, while the latest data from the RBBP suggests a 5-year mean of 432 bp. The accepted wisdom is that almost all of the present wild (or feral, if you prefer) population is derived from escaped or deliberately released falconers’ birds – although I have yet to see any published evidence that confirms this. However, setting aside the remote possibility that a few truly native birds did persist in southern Britain beyond the 1880’s, it is undeniably the case that the great majority of birders now greatly covet a sight of a Goshawk and seldom, if ever scruple to question its native status.
The same revisionist process is going on in the case of the Red Kite. Although its reputation is not nearly so well restored as the Goshawk, it is increasingly regarded as a sound tick by all but the most fastidious of listers despite its Spanish or Swedish grand-parents.
But although it can trace its British ancestry back by as much as 10,000 years, the poor old Eagle Owl is still derided as little better than an escaped Budgie. It is known to have inhabited the area which is now Britain in the Mesolithic era (as some senior KOS members will readily recall), but unfortunately, due to glaciation and the later rise of sea levels which cut the land bridge to the continent, it does seem to have gone missing between then until its reappearance in the eighteenth century.
The modern Kentish pedigree of the Eagle Owl reaches back to the eighteenth century. John Latham (1740–1837) reported that he had been told “if a friend does not deceive me” of an Eagle Owl perched on a gate near a large wood in Kent in 1770. Unfortunately this record precedes the era of digital photography and confusion with Long-eared Owl is all too likely. Ticehurst, the font of all knowledge of Kentish birds in the nineteenth century knew of no other records, nor did Harrison in 1953.
Kent is arguably the most likely county in Britain to receive continental vagrant Eagle Owls, and the absence of records over nearly two centuries is strong evidence that the species does not occur naturally here. It is also significant that there are no records of Eagle Owls appearing at North Sea oil platforms although there are more than 400 records of both Long-eared and Short-eared Owls.
If vagrancy is extremely improbable, escape from captivity is all too likely. In a review published in British Birds in September 2008, Tim Melling and his colleagues estimated that about 3000 Eagle Owls are kept in captivity in Britain and around 65 go missing each year. Some of the absconders are found and returned to their owners, some are found dead, but many remain at liberty. It appears that these birds have no difficulty in finding food in the British countryside, with prey species ranging in size from rabbits, rats and woodpigeons to buzzards and foxes. Eagle Owls can live for up to sixty years in captivity, although in the wild or feral state this must be much less. Nevertheless, if a male and female happen to meet and pair in suitable habitat, then they are on average likely to raise 1.5 young per year.
Suitable nesting habitat for Eagle Owls is in short supply in Britain. The species is said to be very susceptible to disturbance and readily deserts nests and young, but paradoxically most nests in Belgium and the Netherlands are in working quarries.
Eagle Owls are known to have bred in the wild in Britain in 1984 and 1985 in Moray and Nairn (NE Scotland), Derbyshire in 1993 and in North Yorkshire between 1997 and 2005, the latter pair raising at least 23 young. Another pair in the Forest of Bowland (Lancashire) bred successfully in 2007 and 2008, but gained some notoriety after the remains of one of England’s very few breeding Hen Harriers was found close to the nest. Soon after, the owls disappeared amid considerable speculation that they may have been ‘encouraged’ to desert by conservationists looking after the tiny Hen Harrier population.
Meanwhile, (according to Melling et al) in southern England a pair was reported to have established a territory in 2004 and bred successfully in 2005, raising 3 young. It is not known if the pair have bred in subsequent years, but at least one individual was known to have been present in 2007. No details of the site were published at the time and the record was submitted to the Rare Breeding Birds Panel but not to the relevant County Recorder. However, I can confirm that this breeding record was in Kent and that it is possible, or even probable that the long-lived adults remain in the area today. It is also quite possible that one of them or their offspring has wandered off to Ashford to take up residence on Charter House – after all its cliff-like face is really very similar (to an Eagle Owl, that is) to Monfrague.
So the next time you scoff about the origins of Eddy the Eagle Owl, remember that he might just have been born in Kent and may be the pioneer of our next wave of feral colonists.

Stephen Wood