Retired Generals Recruits Owls for Innovative Pest-control Project

Maj. Gen. (res.) Ami Ayalon is famous for having commanded Shayetet 13, the naval commandos, who wear bat-wing pins on their breasts. But this week, Ayalon switched to owls' wings: He and two other senior Israel Defense Forces reserve officers began ridding his olive groves of pests with the aid of owls.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Itzik Eitan, a former GOC Central Command who now chairs the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel's Soldiers, and Brig. Gen. (res.) Ram Shmueli, a former commander of the Ramat David air force base, live on the same moshav as Ayalon. All three grow olives and are interested in organic farming.

They therefore decided to participate in a biological pest-control project sponsored by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Agriculture Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry and Tel Aviv University.

Farmers usually try to kill rodents by means of pesticides, but this also poisons animals that prey on the rodents, and damages the soil, groundwater and plant life. Moreover, traces of poison can make it into feed given to dairy cows. Plus, pesticides are very expensive.

The use of owls as pest control began about 20 years ago at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Beit She'an Valley, which is known for its organic produce. The valley currently has about 200 pairs of owls. Each owl eats about 2,000 rodents a year, thus reducing the need for pesticides.

The project has also spread to other parts of the country, and Jordanian farmers are participating in it as well.

"The owl is a hunting machine that prevents rodents from taking over the fields," explained the project's manager, Dr. Yossi Leshem of SPNI and Tel Aviv University.

Leshem's goal is to have owls and falcons, which perform a similar service, nesting in every bit of agricultural land in Israel. As part of this effort, 1,640 nesting boxes for owls and falcons were set up in fields around the country over the last year.

The effort included a donation from Israel Military Industries of 1,000 ammunition crates, which were then converted into nesting boxes. That donation helps the environment twice over, Leshem noted, since it also enables the crates to be recycled.

And it also fulfills a Biblical injunction, he joked: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks."