The 1970s birthed not only teletext and space invaders, but also everyone’s favourite regional owl-beast. While the rest of the world were indeed playing ‘that funky music’, visitors to the Cornish village of Mawnan were preoccupied with the sighting of a nightmarish hooter.
On the night of April 17th 1976, two young sisters on a camping holiday with their parents found themselves by the 13th century church of St Mawnan and St Stephen. To their terror, above the bell tower, appeared a huge owl “with pointed ears as big as a man”, glowing eyes and black, pincer-like claws. The girls were so shaken by this feathered vision that their father packed up their bags and abruptly put an end to their holiday.
Thus, the Owlman of Mawnan began his reign of terror. Ish.
The image of the Cornish Owlman gripped tabloids and eccentric occultists alike, with sporadic sightings of the beast continuing well into the early 80s. However, most, if not all, information pertaining to this gripping tale of regional terror came from one man; self-styled ‘wizard’ and ‘paranormal researcher’, Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels.
Shiels is an interesting and incredibly lucky (ahem) researcher. In the 1970s alone, Shiels claimed to have personal one-to-one chats with a plethora of magical creatures and was fortunate enough to catch Nessie on film on the second day of his visit. It appears Shiels was a man of many talents, operating as a professional entertainer, artist, poet, playwright and prolific writer. Again, in 1976, ‘The Shiels Effect’ was one of his plethora of publications; this one concerning how to hoax UFO and paranormal effects. He also penned several works on conjuring and stage magic – alongside his more recent efforts of an autobiography, ‘Monstrum! A Wizard’s Tale’, published in 2011. He’s a divisive character, with Magonia Magazine reporting that Shiels purchased his doctorate ‘in the USA for $5’
But Shiels was not simply a reporter within the Owlman legend. As with many other obscure and mystical monsters of the 70s, he was fortunate to come into contact with the beast itself. After his brush with the young campers, the Owlman revealed himself to Shiels, recounted stories and disappeared into the ether.
Shiels continued to document his Owlman experiences in a series of interviews and investigations following the initial bell tower sighting. The sisters – later identified as June and Vicky Melling – produced sketches, which were then re-interpreted by Shiel’s artistic hand. The originals, as with much evidence relating to cryptozoology, are nowhere to be found. Later, Jonathan Downes, the Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (‘The world’s largest mystery animal research group’) furthered research into the Owlman, interviewing several eyewitnesses and increasing the documentation of reported sightings. His work ‘The Owlman and Others’ includes further ‘eyewitness’ descriptions of the Owlman, all similarly dramatic. A later duo of witnesses described the beast as ‘horrible, a nasty owl-face with big ears and big red eyes. It was covered in grey feathers. The claws on its feet were black. It just flew up and disappeared in the trees.’
Regardless of Downes research and his commitment to the Owlman brand, it is understandable how the majority of people – those who did not dismiss the sightings as fraudulent from day one – believe the Owlman to be simply…an owl.
The most common dismissal of ‘Owlman’ is that the huge bird in question was a Giant Eagle Owl. The solution of Barn owls has been thrown around for some time, but considering the average wingspan is around 80-95 cms with no recorded giant examples, they remain in the clear. However, Giant Eagle Owls are essentially flying toddlers, with an average wingspan of 138-170cms. The largest individuals weigh in at around 6 ½ pounds, making them one of the the heaviest owls in the world. While not in possession of glowing eyes, they are suitably scary animals with Birds Britannica stating that they combine the power of ‘a real eagle with the terrifying impact of an owl’s nocturnal strike.’
While not native to the UK, Eagle Owls have been kept as far back as the 1600s and all sightings and current breeding pairs are as a result of escaped pets. They remain popular within the UK, with Birds Britannica quipping that they are currently ‘as common on housing estates as rottweilers.’ On average, 60-70 eagle owls are lost annually with two-thirds not being recaptured.
Whether you believe events at Mawnan can be dismissed as a simple hoax and an owl-less night, the Eagle Owl theory remains popular with debunkers. Despite the proliferation of these ginormous owls into the populous, they remain decidedly owl-sized and are not currently threatening camping trips or family life.
To my knowledge, at least.
Owls, Mike Toms. Collins New Naturalist. Harper Collins. 2014
Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker & Richard Mabey. Chatto & Windus, 2005
The Owlman and Others (30th Anniversary Expanded Edition), Jonathan Downes. Cfz. 2006.