Roadkill Fuels U.K. Trade In Stuffed Rare Owls

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
February 2, 2004

David Leggett's freezer is crammed with dead barn owls. One of Britain's most threatened birds of prey, there's more than 60 ghostly corpses waiting to be stuffed for display. It's a disturbing sight, yet there's no suggestion of any skullduggery, just further evidence that the barn owl (Tyto alba) is gradually being wiped out by Britain's busy roads.

Ironically, these deaths are helping to rehabilitate a profession once associated with the deliberate slaughter of endangered wildlife. By the 1880s almost every town and village had a professional taxidermist. Obsessive Victorian collectors who wanted Britain's rarest and most beautiful animals killed for their elaborate cabinet displays fueled trade especially. Owls and other raptors were highly prized.

This urge to shoot and stuff the contents of the countryside began to wane after the First World War. Bird taxidermy fell further out of fashion as the conservation movement gained momentum. Yet today taxidermy is back in vogue.

David Leggett, who runs Wild Art Taxidermy, near Cambridge, England, represents a new breed of taxidermist. All the animals he works on have died through accident or natural causes. His order book is full; more than 90 percent consists of roadkill.

Leggett, a taxidermist for almost 20 years, said: "The trade was frowned upon when I first started. People presumed these birds had been trapped, shot, or taken in some other illegal way. But in recent years there's definitely been a resurgence of interest."

He believes this is partly because of an increasing awareness that there's a plentiful supply of birds that have met an unfortunate, but accidental, end. In fact, they are all too visible, lying there along the roadside.

Deaths have risen in proportion to traffic volume and the construction of major roads, according a 15-year study into declining barn owl populations published last November.

Produced by the Barn Owl Trust (BOT), a conservation charity based in Ashburton, Devon, England, it suggests 72 percent of barn owls are killed when they encounter a major road.

Rising Death Toll

Since 1959, over 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles) of roads and highways have been built in Britain. Before 1954 the proportion of recorded barn owl deaths due to road traffic stood at six percent. By the 1990s, says the study, this had risen to 50 percent. During the same period U.K. traffic volume rose ten-fold.

The barn owl was Britain's most common owl in the early 19th century. Today things are very different; only an estimated 4,000 breeding pairs remain. Though other factors, such as habitat loss, have played their part, conservationists say these road losses have had a huge impact.

This isn't to say other raptors haven't suffered on the roads. Leggett points to studies that suggest that in some years more than 100,000 immature tawny owls (Strix aluco) are killed by traffic. This species has around 75,000 breeding pairs, however, and seems able to absorb such losses.

Continued on Next Page >>


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