Ray of hope for great bustard

THE corncrake, as everyone knows, is in trouble. Once common, this noisy little relative of the water-hen kept people awake at night with its rhythmic rasping.

Now, alas, the meadows are silent almost everywhere.

But the corncrake is not the only grassland bird in trouble. The species living in meadows and prairies are declining throughout Europe. Among them is a spectacular creature, vaguely resembling a long-legged goose; the great bustard. Like those of the corncrake, bustard numbers started falling about two centuries ago and have continued doing so ever since. The bird is gone from most of its former haunts in Europe. This summer, however, there is some good news. Thanks to a re-introduction programme, there’s a glimmer of hope that great bustards may, once again, roam the pastures and meadows of England; four females hatched eggs successfully this summer.

Described as ‘one of the most spectacular birds on the planet’, the great bustard is the national bird of Hungary. A male can weigh 18kg, rivalling the trumpeter swan for the title of world’s heaviest flying animal. Bustards may look like farmyard fowl but they are in fact dry-country cousins of the wetland-loving cranes. Robert Ruttledge wrote in Ireland’s Birds, back in 1966, that two were seen near Thurles in 1902 and that one was shot near Castletownbere in 1925. Ireland is probably too wet for bustards and they haven’t nested here. They used to breed throughout rural England and in the south of Scotland. Hunting pressure reduced their numbers and mechanised farming sealed their fate. The last British bustard nest was recorded in Suffolk in 1832.

‘Bustard’ comes from the Latin ‘avis tarda’ meaning ‘slow bird’, an inappropriate name; when threatened, bustards head for cover rather than fly but they can move quickly if they need to. Eating invertebrates and plants, these sociable ground-dwellers have spectacular communal displays in which males raise and shake out their tails in ‘foam baths’ of gleaming white feathers.

Reintroducing bustards has long been an ambition of British ornithologists. Captive breeding attempts failed, so a new strategy was devised by the Great Bustard Group, which became a registered charity in 1997. They opted for a ‘rear and release’ programme using eggs taken from the wild. To do this they needed to find a healthy bustard community. Saratov, beyond the Volga in southern Russia, has the world’s second largest great bustard population.

There are about 8,000 birds in an area where the average field size is over 4km2. Nests are destroyed because the well-camouflaged incubating birds sit tight until a tractor is almost upon them. By then it’s too late for the driver to stop or steer around a nest. The local branch of the Russian National Academy of Science have been collecting eggs from these doomed nests and artificially incubating them. Bustard chicks become imprinted on humans, so reintroducing them to the wild in Russia proved to be more difficult than expected. By dressing in ‘dehumanisation suits’, carers managed to solve this problem.

But where, in Britain, should bustards be released? The Salisbury Plain vaguely resembles the steppes from which the introduced birds come. Large areas, owned by the Ministry of Defence, are closed to the public, giving added security to the birds. A 7-hectare release pen was constructed on the Plain and sown with crops which bustards eat. Then, each year since 2004, batches of young birds from Russia were released into it.

Once there, they were no longer offered food but the pen has no roof, so the birds are free to leave at any time. As with ground-nesters generally, mortality among youngsters is high, but some from all of the five annual releases have survived. Many left the Plain for the winter, travelling up to 80km away and returning later. Males don’t usually breed until they are five years old.

Nests in 2007 and 2008 had infertile eggs but in 2009 chicks were raised at two nests, the first British-born bustards in 175 years. With four broods this year, the British great bustard’s prospects, though far from secure, have got considerably brighter.


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