A man who claimed he kept rare owls at his open farm to help educate the public about wildlife is now disheartened after a crackdown by the authorities and now says: “I don’t care if the last owl in Northern Ireland is dead”.
Seamus McAleese from Rosepark Farm near Ballymoney had the premises raided and found himself taken to court charged with possessing three barn owls contrary to the Wildlife Order.
Barn owls are an endangered species in Northern Ireland and the 58-year-old, of Burnquarter Lane, pleaded guilty to the one charge he faced when he appeared at Coleraine Magistrates Court on Friday and was fined £750.
Afterwards, Mr McAleese said it was a “technical” offence and he is now disillusioned, adding: “I don’t want to keep owls any more, I want nothing more to do with them. I don’t care if the last owl in Northern Ireland is dead, I don’t care because of the way I have been treated.
“I only picked the barn owls because the barn owl population in Northern Ireland is only 25 pairs. We could have helped that.
“They are talking there about not releasing them into the wild. I have 30 years experience of this. You can re-train a captive wild bird into the wild, with a bit of common sense. They didn’t give me the opportunity of doing that.”
And he said when the authorities raided his property one of the birds died.
“They stressed the female eagle owl that much, she was defending her nest. She was that distressed that she trampled the very chicks that she was trying to protect and she never went back on to another egg to hatch it,” he said.
He pleaded guilty to having ‘possession or control of a live bird or of any part or derivative of a wild bird or an egg or part of an egg of a wild bird, namely three barn owls, contrary to the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985’.
Prosecutor Stewart Henry told the court, police, a vet and the National Wildlife Crime Unit went to the McAleese farm and found three owls did not have rings attached.
Mr Henry said the defendant told police the public could visit Rosepark Farm for a fee and that he was trying to assist owls but the authorities were hindering that.
Defence barrister Alan Stewart said the purpose of the legislation was to stop people taking wild birds, offspring and their eggs and trading them but his client was not involved in that but instead was displaying the birds openly and treating them well.
He said his client ran an open farm for families and children which attracted 25,000 visitors a year including school bookings.
Mr Stewart said the defendant was passionate about educating people about wildlife and he also wanted to maintain rare species of birds.
Mr Stewart said the defendant contacted the Department and asked what certificates he would need after he bought birds in England and he asked about getting rings for chicks born to the birds.
The response, said Mr Stewart, was for officials to come out and arrest him and said in the course of the raid a bird died after becoming stressed.
A Department official told the court there was no evidence McAleese was involved in trading owls.
A reference was handed to the court from an official with Ballymoney Chamber of Commerce who said the defendant was a “real asset” to the area and Judge McNally noted it was “very high praise”.
Fining McAleese a total of £750, the judge said the legislation was designed to protect barn owls which are an endangered species in Northern Ireland but he said the case fell low down on the scale of culpability where the defendant was openly keeping the birds with evidence of where he bought them and they were well looked after.
However, the judge said the defendant should have had the appropriate rings on the birds. It was ordered that the three barn owls be forfeited.
Outside the court, defence solicitor Brian Moss said: “To adapt a well-known phrase, this case was an example of using a sledgehammer to crack an egg. It is very unfortunate this case was ever brought in the first place or that it ever got this far.
“Mr McAleese is passionate about animal welfare and runs a small family business, Rosepark Farm - an open farm which is set up to educate local people and youngsters about our wildlife.
“Mr McAleese is pleased the Department had the common sense in the end to withdraw the vast majority of the charges against him but it is a travesty that the case was ever brought in the first place.
“Mr McAleese is not the type of individual that the legislation he was prosecuted under was designed to prosecute. On the other hand he is someone who was trying to look after our wildlife and it seems that in the course of seeking assistance from the Department that they decided instead to prosecute him for a technicality.
“It is ironic that having given up ownership of the birds they have remained in Mr McAleese’s care where they have been well looked after at great expense, potentially to the taxpaper, for the best part of the last year.
“They are presently sitting on eggs and if they hatch they will double the population of Barn Owls in Northern Ireland. Mr McAleese hopes the Department will learn their lessons in this case and they will ensure that the birds will continue to thrive when they are returned to the Department’s care.”