Saturday 22 March 2014

Upset on Otmoor 22nd March 2014

A sunny but cold start at Otmoor at around 7am. A little bleary I met Badger and Pete in the Car Park and we set off down the approach track to the Reserve. My but it was cold compared to last weekend - a huge drop of around nine degrees in temperature and once on the Bridleway the raw wind soon started chilling us. Woolly hats were soon the headgear of choice and necessity! 

Nonetheless many birds were, despite the cold in full territorial mode, singing and displaying. Common Redshanks flew over us indulging their wing trembling display flight, calling querously whilst Lapwings were bowing and scraping on their chosen territories. A ChiffChaff struck up its two note 'song' from the hedgerow. Unseen, Bullfinches piped their melancholy calls from deep in the green budding bushes and Reed Buntings sang their monotonous song from the reeds. We joined Terry and Andy further along the bridleway and the five of us meandered down to the first gate.

A lady ensconced in the corner of Big Otmoor was monitoring the Red Kites which were already checking out the potential of the Lapwing and Redshank 'chick feeding station' that has unfortunately been the legacy of the RSPB 's efforts to provide habitat for breeding Lapwing and Common Redshank on Big Otmoor.  As if to prove the point a Red Kite swooped over accompanied by a blizzard of Lapwings mobbing it from all angles. The Red Kite seemed untroubled by this and carried on quartering the land below. Alarmed by its presence a flock of five hundred or so Golden Plover took to the air, wheeling around, showing gleaming white undersides as they caught the sun, apart that is from the few with black undersides and almost in full breeding plumage. Canada and Greylag Geese maintained a continual duet of loud calling, harsh, nasal notes ringing out across the reserve, grating to the ear. A lone male Northern Wheatear, my first this year bounced jauntily on the short grass of Ashgrave and I felt all the better for seeing it.

We made for the Hide. Once inside we looked down the path towards July Meadow. No stonechats on the fenceposts but instead a Common Buzzard was perched on one of the posts. Badger then saw a Barn Owl perched close by on some wooden fencing. A couple of Magpies like juvenile delinquents testing their bravado, all flicking wings and flirting tails maintained a discreet distance from the owl but circled round it and chattered in alarm at its presence. Badger continued looking at the owl and said he thought there was something wrong. It did not move or look around and it was surely unusual to be perched out in the open for such a long time. Fifteen minutes passed and Badger said he definitely thought there was something not right with the Barn Owl and alarmingly said he thought he could see blood on its plumage. The Buzzard had ominously moved a few fenceposts nearer the owl. We went to investigate. The Buzzard flew off  at our approach but the Barn Owl remained hunched and motionless apparently rooted to its perch. We stopped a short distance away and looked through our bins. It looked forlorn, dejected and definitely unwell. Poisoned by something, sick with some avian virus? We carried on and still it just stood there. I looked again and there was blood on its face and feet. When we were virtually level it panicked and tried to fly. Now the problem was all too evident. Its foot was entangled in the barbed wire running along on top of the fence. It hung there upside down flapping feebly. I vaulted the fence and went up to it. I remember thinking 'Please don't let its leg be broken'.

Now this was the most upsetting part of the whole incident.The reason it was caught up in the wire was that it carried a BTO metal ring on its leg and this had become so entangled with a shaft of the wire on the fence that the owl was trapped. Who knows how long it had been there but it must have been some time and even worse in its struggles the trapped leg had been broken. I extricated the owl's foot and leg from the wire and it was free. So light and soft in my bloodied hands I held it firmly to prevent further struggle and possible injury. It sunk the talons of its remaining good foot into my hand which was not pleasant but I hung on in grim determination. Badger prised its needle sharp claws from my finger one by one. That's better. We put the owl in a bag and Badger and Terry immediately took it to Tiggywinkles in Haddenham.

BTO metal ring clearly visible on the broken and bloodied leg
All of us were very upset. Personally I went through a range of extreme emotions but felt mainly anger and frustration at the person who had ringed this owl and inadvertently brought about this situation as well as the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) for their ringing scheme and adding yet another hazard to what is already a perilous existence for our wild birds. I accept my views maybe reflect my upset and ringing does have some benefits but I am writing this some fifteen hours after the event and I am still very troubled by it. I was a bird ringer for over forty years but for some years before I relinquished my licence I harboured increasing doubts about ringing and the collateral injury and disturbance it brings to birds and which is one of the downsides of ringing wild birds.

In this particular case I would ask do we really need to still ring Barn Owls? The recovery rate of ringed birds must be infinitesimal and what new information does it provide if any? There are reams of scientific data and information to be found in the literature about Barn Owls. So my question to the bird ringer and BTO is why was this owl and presumably other ringed Barn Owls in Oxfordshire made vulnerable to an avoidable mishap? For the sake of what? Another meaningless statistic gained from a probable fatality?


The verdict from Tiggywinkles was not good. Apparently Barn Owls with injuries such as the one we rescued do not settle well into captivity and the chances of the Barn Owl's survival are slim.


  1. Very sad and I agree with your sentiments!

  2. Just wondered if you reported this to the BTO?

    1. Hi Martyn
      The BTO have been in touch about this and I have given them all the details. So I guess its over to them now.The whole episode is very unfortunate.