This month Royal Mail is showcasing owls. Animals are amongst the most collected themes and yet the much-loved owl has rarely been a feature of British stamps. It was time that these striking and iconic creatures were given a starring role!
Owls have never been more popular than they are today! Those beautiful big eyes have always captivated us as have tales of the birds’ wisdom but the current interest in these beautiful creatures can be largely attributed to Harry Potter! Sadly, topping the Avian popularity charts hasn’t helped owls one little bit.
Harry Potter and the Pet Trade
The Harry Potter movies appear to have sparked a global demand for the birds as pets. This is serious issue as the majority of the birds which are making their way into the pet trade are being trapped in the wild rather than bred in captivity.
Not so long ago, the number of owls sold at the bird markets of Indonesia in any given year would have been in the hundreds. By 2016, researchers found that more than 13,000 owls were passing through those same markets. If only a certain young wizard could wave his magic wand and make the problem disappear!
An Uncertain Future
The illegal trade in owls is now so prolific that it could endanger the very survival of these wonderful birds. This situation is disturbing enough but owls face an equally uncertain future in the UK. All five of the species found in the UK are currently thought to be in decline. The tawny owl, barn owl, short-eared owl, long-eared owl and the little owl may all be threatened. To make matters worse, so little is known about owls in comparison to other avian species that there is no degree of certainly as to how many birds remain.
The barn owl and the short-eared owl are already species of conservation concern. The barn owl’s decline has been the most dramatic with this birds’ numbers falling by 50 per cent over the last 50 years. At least this is the best estimate of the situation because nobody really knows!
Owls in Decline
The decline of these birds probably began in the 19th century as a result of persecution by gamekeepers and egg collectors. Owls were also shot for taxidermy before they were protected by law. In the 20th century, Barn owls have been the victims of intensive agricultural practices which have resulted in the disappearance of almost all of the unimproved meadows which harbour the owls’ prey.
Dutch Elm disease may also have played a role in the demise of barn owls. Many of our old, hollow trees were lost to the disease and other traditional nest sites for the birds such as old barns have either collapsed or been redeveloped in recent years.
So, the decline of barn owls isn’t exactly a mystery. Much less is known about the short-eared owl and why its numbers are declining or how many of these birds remain in the wild. The range of this species is contracting which confuses the picture further. Short-eared owls are wide-ranging, secretive and largely nocturnal making an accurate assessment of their numbers almost impossible.
A ground-nesting bird, the short-eared owl has probably declined principally due to the loss of grassland and field margins, just as with the barn owl. Intensive farming has removed the short-eared owls’ nesting sites and favoured prey, the short-tailed vole, from the British countryside. However, in the absence of accurate data, we may never know to what extent the owls have declined. We are currently relying largely on anecdotal evidence to assess the situation.
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) began a study of short-eared owls in 2005 in attempt to unravel the mysteries surrounding the species. Much was learnt about the owls’ preferred habitats and migration patterns but the BTO was forced to concede that estimates of its population were unreliable.
Further Research Required
What isn’t in doubt is that owls are struggling in the UK. We just don’t know how serious the problem really is. Further research may be required before it would be possible to identify all of the factors that have contributed to the perceived fall in numbers. Researchers require funding and so the current popularity of owls may at least inspire the necessary increase in donations to the various conservation organisations.
Owl Stamp Issue
Perhaps the latest stamp issue from Royal Mail will also help in the fight to save our owls. Showcasing the five species which are found in the UK, the spectacular issue includes ten gorgeous 1st Class stamps. Five stamps feature the adult birds and five feature the chicks of each species. A presentation pack, first day cover and stamp cards are also available.