RSPB
Print page

Booming marvellous: welcome increase for bittern

Last modified: 07 September 2009

Bittern among reeds

On the verge of extinction 12 years ago, bitterns this year have enjoyed their best year for at least 120 years.

Image: Andy Hay

Research by Natural England and the RSPB reveals that the bittern – one of the UK’s most threatened birds – has enjoyed its best ever year for at least 120 years, continuing this formerly extinct British bird’s dramatic recovery.

The 2009 survey found that the number of calling male bitterns had increased from 75 last year - also a record year - to a record minimum of 82 this year. The number of wetland sites with booming males across the UK has also increased from 41 to 43 this year.

The bittern – a relative of the grey heron – is confined in Britain to tracts of extensive reedbed, especially sections of East Anglia, pockets of northern England and, more recently, the Somerset Levels and Moors.

Concerted effort

Dr Tom Tew, Chief Scientist for Natural England, said: “Extinct by 1886, the bittern only returned in the early twentieth century – coming near to extinction again in the mid 1990s.  Since then, concerted efforts by the conservation community to restore dry reedbeds and create new areas of wet reedbed have paid dividends, with the population now as large as it has ever been during the twentieth century.

“We look forward to future booms in numbers as we realise our joint Wetland Vision project which, with £6m of funding from Natural England, has begun to create extensive areas of new wetlands.”

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Conservation Director, said: “When we feared the bittern would hit the buffers again, the conservation community rallied to its cause by managing or recreating extensive tracts of habitat. We didn’t believe at the time, that we’d see the bittern population bounce back to record levels in just 12 years.”

Since 1990, bittern researchers have estimated the UK bittern population by listening for the male bittern’s booming song, which the birds use to establish territories and attract females. The boom can be heard up to three kilometers or more away.

Researchers recorded a minimum of 82 booming males in the UK. The following regions held the greatest numbers of booming males: Suffolk coast (28); Norfolk Broads (19); and The Fens (12).

"When we feared the bittern would hit the buffers again, the conservation community rallied to its cause by managing or recreating extensive tracts of habitat. We didn’t believe at the time, that we’d see the bittern population bounce back to record levels in just 12 years."

Because male bitterns can mate with more than one female, researchers also count the number of bittern nests. This year 39 nests were found with 14 on the Suffolk coast and seven each in South West England and the Norfolk Broads. Male bitterns do not establish a pair bond with the females and they have no role in the rearing of the young.

Encouraging

Tom Tew, of Natural England, added: “This year’s nesting figures have revealed a continuing and very encouraging increase in the number of nests in areas away from East Anglia. Somerset held seven nests, an increase of five on the previous year. This is exciting news as it shows a spread of the bittern away from coastal East Anglian strongholds -  where the bird is vulnerable to sea-level rise - to new areas which are now more secure.”

The bittern – a protected species in Europe – has been subject to two EU Life projects, funded by the European Commission, since 1997. The funding allowed bittern habitat to be created at a number of sites across England and Wales. Bitterns are now nesting at several of these sites, including the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve in Somerset, and the Society’s Lakenheath Fen nature reserve in the East Anglian Fens. And at two coastal National Nature Reserves managed by Natural England, bitterns have recently nested again for the first time since coastal floods two years ago affected their nesting areas.

The annual bittern monitoring initiative is a partnership between Natural England and the RSPB under the Action for Birds in England programme.

How you can help

Help us continue our conservation work

Bird guide

Nature reserves

Share this