Bustards spread their wings as project closes

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Bustards spread their wings as project closes

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This year 33 birds were released in Wiltshire as part of the EU LIFE+ Great Bustard project.  They have shown good survival to date, and have been seen spreading their wings as far afield as Alderney and Dorset.  Like most of these projects, we won’t know how successful this year’s releases have been until counts are undertaken in spring 2015.  As part of the Natural England licence, the Great Bustard Group will be doing this monitoring, and we look forward to hearing what we hope will be positive news.

As the EU project, which has financially supported this work since 2010, closes, I have invited Dr Andy Evans, Head of our Nature Recovery Unit which led the project, to give some personal reflections on this work.


Reintroduced great bustard in flight. Image by David Kjaer  (www.rspb-images.com)

One summer’s morning in 2014 I had one of the greatest privileges of my 25 year career in conservation. I found myself standing in a grass field on Salisbury Plain, surrounded by the timber and netting of a huge release pen.  I was dressed in a dehumanising suit, designed to make me look like an adult great bustard and was carrying a model of a great bustard head.

I was alone. Alone that is, except for a creche of 9, 6-week-old great bustard chicks. These chicks had arrived in the UK from Spain as eggs, eggs which had been incubated and hatched by staff at ‘BirdWorld’, then hand-reared by LIFE+ project staff at a secret site on Salisbury Plain.

My job was that of tutor. In the wild, great bustard chicks stay with the adults for a long period, during which they learn about their environment – what to eat, when to run, when to hide.

I spent an inspirational 90 minutes getting to know my class and showing them the sweetest, tastiest young lucerne leaves and encouraging them to try the occasional beetle or spider. I was entranced by the way they followed me, watching for guidance and visibly learning.

On the long trip home I had time to reflect with great pride upon how much the LIFE+ partnership had brought to the long-term efforts to bring this magnificent species back to the UK.  We have made some tremendous advances in the last 4 years:  switching from importing Russian-reared chicks to Spanish eggs, refining the chick diet after an exchange visit to our colleagues in Germany, introducing the dehumanising suits and schooling the chicks, sourcing two new release sites each with a more open vista and lower predator densities than the original site, switching from chain-link fencing to soft electric fencing and thus reducing collision risk.  All these changes have resulted in hugely improved post-release survival and given real hope that the ultimate objective of establishing a self-sustaining wild population of great bustards in southern England can eventually be achieved.

Of course it is with a tinge of sadness that I am writing this at a time when the partners have agreed to close the EU LIFE+ project 9 months early (see here). Notwithstanding this, I would like to take the opportunity to wish the Great Bustard Group every success in the future as they pursue the laudable objective of bringing this incredible species back to its former home in the UK.  And I remain proud of the contribution that the LIFE+ partnership has made towards this ambition and the tremendous progress that has been achieved.

Andy Evans

  • Oh and one more thing, Bob - each year's results are detailed on the LIFE+ Great Bustard Project web-site (greatbustard.org/.../about-life).  This year's results haven't been written up yet, project staff are in the process of doing so.  When they are completed, they will appear on the LIFE+ project web-site.  Hopefully, we'll be able to report on progress of the 33 released birds.

  • Thanks for this Bob.  The RSPB became involved in the project in the hope that the resources we could secure and the technical expertise and experience we could bring would enhance the chances of the reintroduction succeeding.  And I think we have done that.   The first major problem to address was the extremely high post-release mortality that the project had encountered prior to our involvement.   We have addressed this by working with the partnership to establish two new release sites with an open vista and lower fox densities, using soft rather than hard anti-predator fencing, importing eggs (in 2012 from Russia, in 2014 from Spain), tweaking the chick diet, and using dehumanising suits to deliver post-release parental care.  As a result of this, post release survival has been dramatically improved.   We know from the work of the University of Bath that there is ample habitat in the region to support a self-sustaining population of great bustards. The question remains as to whether adults can breed successfully. To date the sample of birds reaching breeding age (3-4 years) has been too small to answer this question (although one pair has raised chicks to fledging). Now we have a system of rearing and safely releasing larger number of birds the Great Bustard Group can take the project forward to ultimate success.  

  • Martin /Andy,  This project is rather an odd one for me, for despite living in Wiltshire I have to admit to being a bit of a sceptic.  I still wish the project well but have concerns that disturbance on the plain is high and with the military returning from Germany and Afghanistan it can only get higher.    It is the ability of these birds to reproduce that is key to future success but there is little public information as to how many birds were released and how many still remain and are breeding.

    I know that the project switched from Russian birds to Spanish because of movement problems, stating that the Spanish birds would not move around as much.  As such it is a bit worrying to see you comment on this year's release being seen in Alderney and Dorset.

    The RSPB was initially not in support of this project and changed it's mind prior to the LIFE+ funding. You now talk of considerable progress but is there anywhere where the information on the current status of these birds is available publicly in order that I may become convinced of future success (I would love to be converted).