Big birds, big trouble
11 June 2010
Here is a puzzle from the bird world – or, rather, from the world of bird enthusiasts, conservationists, popularisers and twichers.
It is a tale of two very large birds of prey, the eagle owl and white-tailed sea eagle. Both are very occasionally found in these islands and both have the nasty, but understandable, habit of snacking on birds and mammals, sometimes of quite significant size (herons, pigs, dogs – that sort of thing).
One, though, is an environmental villain; the other a celebrated hero.
This week it was revealed that an eagle owl had attacked the nest of the very rare hen harrier in Lancashire. There was an outcry, not least from Natrural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The RSPB’s director of conservation has warned in the past of the terrible things that the eagle owl can do.
‘As is the case with all introduced species, we do not know what impact they may have on our native fauna…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.’
But wait. Another top predator is being actively invited to snack on native fauna – with the help of Natural England and the RSPB. Plans to introduce the sea eagle to East Anglia are being actively pursued – in the teeth of opposition from local conservationists and farmers, and at a cost to the taxpayer of £600,000.
The argument – a weak one – is that sea eagles may once have flown here. Oh, and it’s good for tourism. Big, hungry owls may be environmentally harmful but big, hungry eagles are, according to NE, a sign of a healthy environment.
What is going on here? Robin Page has argued that conservation bodies have a peculiar weakness for charismatic raptors like the sea eagle – that the eagle owl’s big mistake is that it likes to eat other predators like the hen harrier.
Could that possible be true? Perhaps birds of prey have a strange attraction for ornithologists, rather as pit-bull terriers appeal to certain skin-headed males?
Here’s Mark Avery’s blog on the subject.