The UK Little Owl Project

I challenge anyone to gaze into the distrustful yellow eyes of a Little Owl and not feel thoroughly enchanted. Charismatic, confiding and often somewhat comical, the Little Owl is a firm favourite among naturalists, birders and country goers alike and during its relatively short spell in the UK has quickly found its way into the heart of Britain’s nature loving populace. I for one adore Little Owls. Maybe it is their permanently scolding glare? or perhaps their amusing tendency to run after prey? It could even be the fact that these pint sized predators way no more 180 grams! Who knows? What I do know is that Little Owls are a pleasure to behold in the wild. Living in Northumberland I am lucky enough to see this species with fair regularly though, sadly, this is far from the case elsewhere in Britain with the Little Owl population plummeting dramatically in recent years. This trend has led to the creation of the UK Little Owl Project (found here); a new scheme created by Dr Emily Joachim and photographer Andy Rouse designed to monitor our declining Little Owls. More on that later however, first, a brief history lesson..

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History of Little Owl in the UK
Given its favourable stature among nature lovers you would be forgiven for thinking that the Little Owl was indeed a native British species. Quite the contrary however, the UK Little Owl population stems entirely from releases made in the eighteen hundreds. Although Little Owls had been reported sporadically prior to the official release date (see here) it was not until 1874 that the species gained its first toe hold in Britain. This introduction was made by Edmund -Meade Waldo who released 40 owls in Stonewall Park, Kent between 1874 and 1880. These initial pairs first bred in 1879 and so began the story of Athena noctura in the British Isles. This initial introduction was soon bolstered by others; most notably by Lord Lilford of Oundle, Northamptonshire with birds from this release first recorded breeding in 1889. Aided and abetted by further introductions the Little Owls now residing in the UK soon spread across the length and breadth of the country, colonising much of England and Wales by 1940 and first breeding in Scotland by 1958. Though success in Scotland was fairly limited with less than 50 breeding pairs colonizing, the Little Owl soon consolidated itself as a common bird of prey across vast swathes of the UK.

In The Present Day

The Little Owl is at present classified as a naturalised introduced breeding species in the UK though this is disputed by some naturalists who state the Little Owls presence in the fossil record as a case for its reclassification as a reintroduced native species. Whatever your thoughts on this matter however A.noctura is now widely regarded as a part of British biodiversity and comprises a much celebrated aspect of our natural heritage. At present the UK Little Owl population is largely restricted to England and the Welsh Borders although a few isolated populations persist in West Wales. Within its range the Little Owl is most abundant in East Anglia, the Midlands and Central Northern England where it inhabits lowland farmland, parkland and orchards (RSPB, 2015). You can find out more about Little Owls and where to see them via the UK Little Owl Project’s Spotters Guide (found here).
At present statistics show that the UK Little Owl population is in rapid decline. Data collected by the BTO suggests that the British population of this charismatic owl has declined by 65% during a 25 year period. A worrying trend if ever there was one. This is not all; this decline has apparently worsened since 2002 and the species has been subject to an 11% contraction in range since it was last surveyed between 1968-72. The overall UK Little Owl population now stands at only 5,700 pairs, a mere fraction of its former number. This trend has worried conservationists and highlights the need for a series of precise, focused Little Owl surveys on a national scale.
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The UK Little Owl Project
The UK Little Owl project is a wonderful initiative born of Dr Emily Joachim’s and co-founder Andy Rouse’s unbridled passion for Little Owls. Emily conducted her PHD studies on “the breeding ecology of Little Owls in England” whilst Andy Rouse regularly photographs the species in superb quality. Both agree that something needs to be done to combat recent declines and bolster our existing knowledge of this eye catching owl. When asked about the aims of the project and her hopes for the future Emily writes:
“We aim to further our understanding of the Little Owl’s ecology in the UK. We want to support, develop and promote new and existing UK Little Owl research projects. This includes projects that monitor Little Owl nests, record biometrics, habitat use, diet, vocalisations and juvenile survival rates. We’re keen to support projects which survey for UK Little Owls. We will provide you with advice on how to support your local Little Owls, including how to install and maintain Little Owl nest boxes and habitat management advice. We would like to develop resources to help standardise UK Little Owl monitoring projects. This includes downloadable guides on nest boxes, how to study Little Owl diet and monitoring nest sites. Information will be shared via our (found here) and Twitter feed (@UKLittleOwls)”
How Can You Help?

If like Emily, Andy and myself you are fond of Little Owls and would like to contribute to the project there are a number of ways in which you can help.

  1. Firstly, if you have seen or heard a Little Owl recently you can report your sighting (here). This data will help form a greater knowledge of Little Owl distribution and will prove vital when it comes to the choice of survey locations in the future.
  2. If you are already involved with a Little Owl monitoring scheme in the UK you can contact the team (here).
  3. If you require information about Little Owls or wish to know more about surveys or taylor made nest boxes you can follow the the projects blog. (found here)
  4. You can actively support the project via direct donations. For more information on this please see here.
  5. If you too are passionate about Little Owls and feel you may be able to sponsor the project you can contact Emily directly at emily@littleowlproject.uk.

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at commonbynature.co.uk, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.

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1 Response

  1. Bob Hussey says:

    08.05.16 Little owl seen near King’s Walden, Herts

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