Belfast Telegraph

I wanted to help wildlife, says man fined over keeping rare barn owls

By Nevin Farrell

A man who claims he kept rare owls at his open farm in Co Antrim to help educate the public about wildlife says he is now disheartened after a crackdown by the authorities.

Seamus McAleese's premises at Rosepark Farm near Ballymoney were raided and he was 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 when he appeared at Coleraine Magistrates Court yesterday 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 population in Northern Ireland is only 25 pairs. We could have helped that."

Prosecutor Stewart Henry said officials, including a vet and the National Wildlife Crime Unit, went to the McAleese farm and found that three owls did not have rings attached. Defence barrister Alan Stewart said his client ran an open farm for families and children which attracted 25,000 visitors a year, he was passionate about educating people about wildlife and wanted to maintain rare species of birds. His client had contacted the Department of Environment to ask what certificates he needed after he bought birds in England and asked about getting rings for chicks born to the birds.

The response, said Mr Stewart, was for officials to arrest him and he 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.

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 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, he said the defendant should have had the appropriate rings on the birds. It was ordered that the three barn owls be forfeited.

His 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".

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