131 years of Little Owls

Little Owl. Photo: Tim Melling

Today is the anniversary of the first Little Owl nest nest to be found in the UK. 

Little Owls were successfully introduced into the UK at Lilford Hall, just down the road from me here in east Northants, by the 4th Baron Lilford: in 1889, on St George’s Day, his gamekeeper found a Little Owl on a nest.

Little Owls are not native UK species – for some reason they stopped at the English Channel and didn’t colonise.  However, they are very cute-looking birds and several Victorian naturalists thought that the UK would be better off with Little Owls than without them. 

A Mr Meade-Waldo in Kent tried hard to get them established but it was Lord Lilford of Lilford Hall in the County of Northamptonshire who managed to do it.

The 4th Baron Lilford was a great ornithologist and in his very own ‘The Birds of Northamptonshire‘ he writes as follows:

I have for a considerable number of years annually purchased a number of these Owls in the London market, and as the majority are too young to fly when first received, I have had them placed together in large box-cages in quiet places about our grounds in Lilford, and left the doors of the cage wide open, taking care that an ample supply of food is provided once during the day for the Owls.  I regret that I have not kept notes as to when I first adopted this practice, but for several years, beyond the fact that we occasionally saw and frequently heard of one or more Little Owls in the neighbourhood, nothing of importance came of the experiment, so far as I am aware, till 1889, when one of our gamekeepers, on April 23, found a Little Owl sitting in a hollow bough of an old ash tree in the deer-park at Lilford; she would not move, but he lifted her, and found that she was sitting upon a single egg, to which she added three, and brought off four young birds in the second week of June.  One, if not two, other broods were reared in our near neighbourhood in 1889

And the Little Owl is the logo of the Northants Bird Club to this day.

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31 Replies to “131 years of Little Owls”

  1. Northants Bird Club, I like that. Nothing pretentious about it like the Oxford Ornithological Society. Don't get me wrong, the OOS is a prestigious society, from the founder Bernard Tucker onwards it has had many famous birders. I'm a member and perhaps you were in your Oxford days Mark. But a Little Owl logo and Bird Club, I like!

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  2. Historically the Little Owl was vilified in the early 20th century by keepers and shooting folk for allegedly taking lots of partridge chicks. As I understand it one of the first BTO enquiries showed this to be utterly wrong ( the game lobby has been getting this stuff wrong ever since). Little Owls get hammered in hard winters and I can remember them almost disappearing from around Harrogate where I grew up after 1963. It took some years for them to recover. they are not as common now as they were 30 years ago and there are those who blame ivermectins in livestock for this. It reduces enormously the presence in our fields of dung beetles a favourite prey of these delightful owls. A colleague and I once found a Little Owl so wet from worming in dewy grass it couldn't fly, but half an hour in a big bird bag close to the vehicle heater soon saw it dry enough to be released where we found it. A lovely bird to share our world with.

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    1. In the seventies I remember being dazzled by the clouds of yellow flies and smattering of dung beetles on the fresh cowpats I'd see as I walked to school. If I hadn't seen that I'd never have realised how incredibly poor for insect life modern cowpats are with massive negative consequences for everything from bats to swallows and clearly little owls. Along with the now long gone masses of water vole that once existed in the local canal my personal experiences of shifting baseline syndrome. Scary stuff. P.S Paul I didn't know you are a Harrogate man, I knew it quite well I've been a best man there - do you know the Shaftoes?

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      1. I don't think so Les, I lived in Harrogate until 21 (1972) when I went to work in the Black Country, lived in Edgbaston, worked in Oldbury. I grew totally disillusioned with the chemical industry and went back to Uni in Birmingham and did a Zoology degree. I moved back to Harrogate in mid 1985 and apart from stints in Bowland for RSPB lived there until early Feb 18. Having retired I no longer had an excuse not to come to Wales where my partner has lived since 1985. A good decision.

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        1. They owned the blue fronted antique shop in Regent Parade, by the stray. There was a good chance you would have known them as they were very active in various social and conservation initiatives - quite a bunch of characters, but that's hardly unusual in Yorkshire! Harrogate is quite a place, but Wales is wonderful and Cardiff is the friendliest place I've ever been which is remarkable since it's a large city.

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          1. I knew the shop but never I think went in. I was Harrogate bird recorder for nine years and may have come across them, I still have many friends in the area of course. When I go to Yorkshire ( outside this bloody virus period) I stay with friends in Ripon or at my sisters in Garforth, close to St Aidans. My partners younger daughter has lived in Cardiff since she went to Uni there but they are about to move to Bangor, where her husband has a new job in the hospital.

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  3. When asked about introduced species I generally single out Little Owl as the one species that seems to fit in ok and does no or little harm .

    They have declined markedly in North Somerset over the past 20 years and maybe one reason is competition and occasional predation from an enlarged Buzzard population.

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  4. A paper was written about Little Owls in the very first volume of "British Birds" (WITHERBY, H.F. and N.F. TICEHURST. 1908. The spread of the Little Owl from the chief centres of its introduction. Brit. Birds 1: 335–342). In here it says that they were breeding in Kent 10 years before they bred in Northants. Apparently E G B Meado-Waldo released dozens of birds between 1874 and 1900 around Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks and they first nested in 1879 and were well established and widespread by 1900. The first attempt at establishing Little Owls in Britain was actually in Yorkshire at Walton Park near Wakefield in 1843 when Charles Waterton released five Little Owls that he had brought from Rome the previous year. These vanished without establishing themselves. They were also released in Norfolk and Sussex in the 1870s but these failed to establish too.

    I also find it interesting that most of us accept Little Owl because it occurs naturally just across the channel. Yet there are no records of it occurring naturally in Britain, not even as bones or fossils.

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    1. Tim - thanks. I think the fact that they are near-neighbours, and found with the same background fauna and flora makes us think differently about them than a trans-continental introduction. And that seems right to me.

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      1. Mark - "And that seems right to me." - that's the thin end of a very big wedge!

        We know that introduced species are a (the?) major cause of global extinctions and that islands are most at risk. But somehow we seem to think of our island fauna and flora as impoverished compared to mainland Europe and ripe for enrichment - a Victorian / Edwardian attitude if ever there was one and which belongs in the dustbin of history along with the gamekeeper's gibbet.

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        1. A bit of an over-reaction surely? If the argument was being made that we should be actively importing anything and everything that occurs just the other side of the channel you might have a point but the Little Owl was introduced over 130 years ago and its presence here is an established fact whether we like it or not.
          Since the Little Owl has been with us for all those decades it is possible to reflect that it appears to have had no obvious deleterious impact on the ecology of the British Isles and hypothesise that that is due to the fact that occurs on the adjacent continent in very similar ecological communities to those we have here and that it probably evolved alongside most of the native British fauna and flora. It might very easily have occurred here but simply didn't make it across after the Ice Age before the sea rose and 'isolated the continent'.

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          1. Thanks, Jonathan. Yes, probably a bit of an over-reaction but there are a lot of people who think it would be great to have, for example, Eagle Owls here filling a "vacant niche". Indeed, I'm sure Eagle Owls have been deliberately illegally released, perhaps with the hope they might establish.

            I was just trying to make the point that we should value our island status. The UK is internationally important for seabirds. My understanding is that Little Owls have been a problem at some Little Tern colonies but I can't quote a source. Imagine if Eagle Owls established and a pair turned up at a sensitive conservation site. I think the Roseate Terns off Rhosneigr were exterminated by a single female Peregrine that used to land, grab a chick and fly off again.

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        2. Our island status is negligible. It is too recent and we are too close to the continent, we sit on the continental shelf FFS, to make a conservation difference. We're not the Galapagos and We Are Not Special, and we should be filling in niches of animals we have extirpated on this island. IT is replacing our divot. The Edwardian/Victorian thing is pretending our impovershiment is special in some way, and seeking to maintain that human created ecological desert.

          Frankly if it was at all possible I'd have them polderise the whole channel to recreate the land bridge so that the myth of exceptionalism and the English moat could be killed and that wildlife could naturally recolonise. Maybe one day, but until then we have a duty to fix what our ancestors broke.

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          1. "Our island status is negligible … We are not special."

            We are very special. Britain and Ireland are two big islands with many smaller islands off them and many even smaller islands off them. I'm all for reintroducing what man has exterminated in recent historic times, if the habitat is still there and it's feasible, but that's as far as any responsible conservationist would go.

            Fortunately, many people think our islands are special enough to warrant spending huge sums on eradicating what shouldn't be here, like stoats on mainland Orkney for example - just one of our many very special island places.

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      2. Spot on Mark! I call them 'near natives', personally I love that we've got at least local populations of the bitterling, midwife toad and wall lizard in the UK. I remember mutterings about the marsh frog displacing the common frog, but of course it didn't it just filled a previously empty niche as it did on the continent where it lived alongside the common frog. While you'll get a lot of panic and I'd say posturing about the eagle owl becoming established because it may not be here via expansion of the European population there's very little about genuinely invasive, non native snowberry and cherry laurel killing off native flora and fauna in our woods.

        Reintroductions get criticised because they are technically a form of introduction (!?!), and even rigorously planned releases of biological controls struggle to get the go ahead. I'm positive we're going to need to do a hell of a lot more with biological controls if we're really going to get to grips with invasive species. There's a lot of hype and a bit of politics about introductions that's not actually doing much to curb invasive species, but is ironically hurting conservation instead. A well informed and rational debate about the subject is long overdue.

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  5. As per Paul's comment on declines above, these wonderfully cute little birds are sadly now extinct in West Glamorgan with the last record in 'Gower Birds' being in 2011, reflecting a retreat across western England and Wales.

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    1. My experience is that Bubo is not the "bête noire" many claim. That is unless you are a Rabbit, Brown Rat, RL Partridge or Red Grouse.

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    2. A crying shame is what it is. Eagle owls are native birds, which were sadly extirpated like the wolf and lynx. They need reintroduction to help the ecosystem function properly. They are a keystone predator.

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      1. I totally agree they are an element of the European predator guild that fills a particularly wide and important ecological niche and they have found post glacial remains in the UK. It's not as if something else has evolved to fill the empty niche while it's been absent for whatever reason!

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  6. We have grey squirrels here as a result of much the same line of thinking. How cute both species are. And those wonderful Egyptian Geese - I'm sure they aren't going to cause any problems either. RIP the Ruddy Duck!

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    1. Bob - Grey Squirrels are cute - ask any child transfixed by them in St James's Park. But their problem is that they are not adapted to this continent and this continent's flora and fauna are not co-evolved with them - the same is not true of Little Owl. Having said that, if there were no Little Owls in the UK and someone suggested introducing them then I'd probably be against it citing both the precautionary principle and the fact that there are better things to spend the money on. But we're 131, or according to Tim Melling (see comment) 141 years too late for that.

      Anyway, the Pine Martens will sort out the Grey Squirrels - bring them on!

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      1. Thanks, Mark. I hope you're right about the Pine Martens! I actually like the Little Owls we have around here but I do think we should value our island status more than many people do. And the way that UK governments have allowed so many alien plants and animals to become established here is a scandal, and a very expensive one. And I'm afraid as far as many birders are concerned there is a very selfish mindset of just wanting more species to tick and enjoy, as the Ruddy Duck saga demonstrated.

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        1. You're right about the govt's pathetic attitude to non native species - biosecurity is a joke and pheasant shoots can still legally plant out invasive species such as cherry laurel and snowberry to provide cover for pheasant. Sir Peter Scott regretted that they'd complacently allowed the ruddy duck at Slimbridge to become the source for a non captive population.

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          1. Thanks Les. Did Peter Scott really change his mind on Ruddy Ducks? As late as 1980 he wrote "...they will, I believe, prove a harmless and attractive addition to the British avifauna." Observations of Wildlife, page 44. He also thought the time might come when it would be worth considering establishing a feral population of Red-breasted Geese in Britain or Scandinavia (page 110).

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    2. Bob - Well, I still think they are wonderfully cute and that in over 100 years since their introduction to Britain they have had no observably deleterious impact on our island fauna and flor. Being capable of holding more than one thought in my head at a time, I don't think that about either the Egyptian Goose or the Ruddy Duck.

      I would personally be very pleased to see them naturally recolonise West Glamorgan. They first colonised West Glamorgan around 1920. At the time of the Breeding Bird survey 1984-1989 it was estimated that there were 100 pairs in West Glamorgan. They have now been extinct for nearly a decade - no records for the county at all since 2011 - and might be considered a useful indicator species reflecting the serious decline in bird populations here.

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      1. Thanks Francis. I suppose my main point is that we muck about with the natural world at our peril.

        With Little Owls, I agree: we have them and I like them. They might not be good news if you were a Little Tern chick though.

        I see they are back on Ramsey Island.

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  7. I realised I'd read his comment in 'The Naturalized Animals of the British Isles' (1977) and it turns out he'd written the foreword for it. He does express regret for letting the ruddy duck become established and says he wasn't in a position to judge others for introducing non native species. Sounds as if he may have relaxed a bit later on. I had no idea he thought about the possibility of bringing in red breasted geese. In certain carefully controlled situations this might be quite a useful conservation tool for some species where in situ conservation in the natural range and/or captive breeding are unrealistic. Just supposing if it ever boiled down to a stark choice between trying to establish a European population of spoon billed sandpipers (until they can be translocated back 'home') or letting them die out completely what option would the conservation community take?

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