Photo: © Recent studies have found that the snowy owl has a more patchy population distribution than previously thought

THE SNOWY OWL (Bubo scandiacus) has been classed as Vulnerable for the first time on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

Previously, the species had been categorised as Least Concern, which is the lowest threat category on the IUCN’s global conservation status list. This assessment was based on earlier figures that estimated the global population to be about 200,000 individuals, and did not take into account evidence of significant declines in recent years.

Now, experts have estimated snowy owls figures to be about 14,000 pairs, but warn that this figure could vary depending on the availability and distribution of the birds’ prey, which during summer breeding seasons consists of various larger species of lemmings. Reasons behind the birds’ population decline include climate change, which has an adverse affect on the birds’ prey, illegal hunting and collisions with vehicles and power lines.

Andy Symes, BirdLife International’s global species officer, said: “These ongoing – and, in the case of climate change, potentially worsening – threats, are driving declines that have resulted in the snowy owl having its global threat status upgraded, which means that this species faces a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.”

More worryingly is that experts warn that the global population of snowy owls could drop as low as 7,000 or even 5,000 pairs when abundance of prey drops to a low.

Mr Symes added: “The dramatically revised population estimates are a further source for concern, and the species must now be a high priority for further research and conservation action.”

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