Facts about the

Short-eared Owl

Scientific name: Asio flammeus

Bird Family: Owls

UK conservation status: Amber

At a glance

  • Named after the tufts of feathers on their head which look a bit like mammalian ears.
  • Hunts during the day and largely breeds in small numbers in rough grasslands and the uplands.
  • Habitat loss and persecution on grouse moors has led to a decline in the UK.

Short-eared Owls are medium-sized birds with intricately mottled brown bodies, pale under-wings and yellow eyes, and are named after the tufts of feathers on their head which look a bit like mammalian ears. Unlike more familiar species of owl which are largely nocturnal, short-eareds are diurnal, hunting voles and small birds at dawn and dusk and often during the day (especially when feeding young or in winter when daylight is very limited). They mostly breed in rough grasslands and the uplands of northern England and Scotland, but are more widespread in the winter when the UK population is joined by birds from Scandinavia, Russia, and Iceland.

Breeding numbers fluctuate in response to prey availability, and their remarkable nomadism is becoming apparent through ongoing tracking studies. This makes the species difficult to census, which is reflected in the unusually broad approximation of the UK population as somewhere between 610 to 2,140 pairs.

The population is considered to be in moderate decline though. Surveys for the BTO’s Bird Atlases suggest their breeding range in Britain decreased by 48% between the 1968-72 and 2008-11 censuses, so the species is Amber Listed as a bird of conservation concern in the UK. Habitat changes – particularly in the use of grasslands and upland moors – appear to be driving declines across its global range, but here in the UK they are subject to another, all too familiar pressure: Short-eared owls are routinely shot on driven grouse moors.

Historically gamekeepers have targeted Short-eared Owls because of a perceived threat to grouse chicks. An interesting article by Dr John Mather is perhaps typical. It quotes a 1957 report in which a preponderance of Short-tailed Voles in the Harrogate District “attracted unusually high numbers of Short-eared Owls which, in turn, attracted the attention of gamekeepers, one of whom shot both birds of a breeding pair in the Upper Dale. One member of a grouse-shooting party stated that ‘they took the opportunity to shoot every one of the ten Short-eared Owls seen during the day’ and, unbelievably, a local gamekeeper shot 26 Kestrels over a period of a few weeks, as they were also being attracted to the voles”.

Despite the species having full protection under UK law, more recent incidents are still all too regular.

Guy Shorrock, an RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, said in 2018 following the conviction of gamekeeper Timothy Cowin for shooting two Short-eared Owls on Cumbria’s Whernside Estate, “Over the years we have had a number of very disturbing reports from people within the shooting industry, alleging widespread and systematic killing of Short-eared Owls on grouse moors in the north of England. The premeditated way these beautiful birds were flushed, shot and hidden was truly shocking”.

Short-eared owl, Asio flammeus, single bird on heather, North Uist, Hebrides

Recents incidents of illegal persecution are just as bad.

In 2021 a Short-eared Owl was found shot on a grouse moor on the Wemmergill Estate in the North Pennines AONB, the same estate where just 1km away two Short-eared owls were found shot and stuffed into a hole in 2015 and where a satellite-tagged Hen Harrier called Marc had ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances in 2018. In all three instances no-one was arrested or charged.

These examples will be just the tip of the iceberg. Uncovering incidents of raptor persecution is incredibly difficult. Estates are very large and often remote, and landowners almost never report their employees for wildlife crime. As Jack Ashton-Booth, another RSPB Investigations Officer, said at the time of the 2021 killing, “This is the third shot short-eared owl we are aware of in this area in the last six years…Each of those birds could have gone on to have three, four or five chicks, had they been allowed to live. When I think of the scale of even just one area of moorland, and its array of nooks and crannies… how many more of these stunning birds could have been shot and concealed down holes or buried under peat? It’s impossible to know.”

Other than the shooting industry, who or what would want to kill a Short-eared Owl? Answers on a postcard please…As we say elsewhere, the only way to stop raptor persecution is to close down the shooting industry, rewild the moors, and help the UK’s battered biodiversity rebuild.

How will we end the shooting industry?