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Great Bustard Reproduces in England After 177 Years

Great British Bustards! That’s how The Great Bustard Group, a charity striving to re-establish a self-sustaining population of the world’s heaviest flying bird in the UK, greeted this week’s news that years of hard work had paid off with the sighting of hatchlings in the wild.


Photo courtesy The Great Bustard Group

“For the first time since 1832, the great bustard–one of Europe’s most threatened birds has … nested in the UK with two females successfully hatching chicks,” the charity said in a news release yesterday.

“This is a tremendous step forward for the Great Bustard Reintroduction Project, the wildlife of the UK, great bustards, and for me,” said David Waters, founder and director of the Great Bustard Group. “It has been a hard struggle to get this far. I am exhausted and nearly broke, but to see great bustards breeding after an absence of 177 years is brilliant.”

Said Mark Avery, conservation director for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds,”This fantastic news marks another chapter in the struggle to bring back England’s lost wildlife.”

Tamas Székely, of the University of Bath–a partner of the Great Bustard Consortium–said: “The Great Bustard is a difficult species to reintroduce as it is a long-lived, slow-maturing bird. But this is a very encouraging sign that the reintroduction trial will be successful.”

great-bustard-chicks-picture-2.jpgPhoto courtesy The Great Bustard Group

The cause of the hubbub was the sighting this week of great bustard chicks following their mother and being fed. A day later another female was seen feeding a chick. During May a female great bustard was observed incubating a clutch of eggs.

The nest sites, on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, are being kept secret.

The great bustard is the only bird nesting in the UK that is facing global extinction, according to the RSPB’s Mark Avery. “Establishing a new population here should ensure a brighter future for this Globally Threatened bird, which continues to decline across parts of Europe.”

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The successful hatching of the eggs marks a huge milestone for the project to reintroduce the great bustard to Britain, according to the Great Bustard Group. “The last wild great bustard chick to hatch in the UK was in 1832, when a female was seen with a single chick in Suffolk.”

The Great Bustard Group was formed in 1998. The reintroduction effort began in 2004 with annual releases of between six and 32 birds each autumn. The birds are released under a licence issued by UK authorities to the Great Bustard Consortium (the Great Bustard Group and the University of Bath).

The reintroduction trial uses great bustards reared from eggs rescued from cultivation in Saratov Oblast, southern Russia. The chicks are reared in the Russian Federation in a partnership with the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Evolution and Ecology–a branch of Russia’s Academies of Science.

When the chicks are about six weeks old they are imported into the UK and after a period of quarantine they are released on to Salisbury Plain.

“The first known nest from this project was in 2007, and there was at least one further nest in 2008,” the news statement said. “However, the eggs from these clutches were found to be infertile, most likely due to the young age of the males. It is widely considered that male Great Bustards become fertile at an age of four or five years, so 2009 is the earliest that eggs were expected to hatch.”

David Waters added: “The Great Bustard is a slow bird to mature, so it has been a long wait to get this far, but this could not be speeded up. A small UK population of about 18 birds has been built up, but it is only when this population begins to produce its own young and becomes self-sustaining that the project can be judged as successful. The indications are extremely positive”.

The reintroduction project is essentially self-supporting, funded by membership subscriptions, private donations and self-generated income.