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Great Bustards in the UK

15/07/2006 00:00:00 news/great-bustard10

2007 new arrivals
Unfortunately only 6 Great Bustards arrived in Wiltshire this year due to a very low number of nests having been found during routine spring and summer argicultural operations in Russia, the only source of Great Bustard eggs to benefit the UK project. Saratov had unusually hot weather which may have contributed to lower breeding success as well as bringing agricultural operations at least two weeks earlier than normal.

However, all the birds are in good health after their journey to the UK. The Great Bustard Group reintroduction project has demonstrated that once birds have made it through the first couple of months after release, they have an excellent chance of a long life so every bird counts towards re-establishing the Great Bustard in the UK.

Other Great Bustard articles.

The project has a license to release up to 40 Great bustard chicks each year, and with some new incubators the hope is that this seasons hatching will be the most successful yet.

Al Dawes, one of two full time employees of the project said 'Our aim is to have a stable population which may be as little as 20 adult birds after the initial 10 year phase of the project. We will conduct a review to see how we will progress after that. In the long term areas in East Anglia and Yorkshire certainly have suitable and sufficient habitat to maintain other populations of Great bustards. It is possible that the birds might spread there naturally, but we haven‘t ruled out the possibility of re-introducing bustards there.'
For details of how to support the project, see the bottom of the page.
Great bustards in holding pen. © Great bustard Group.
2004-5 releases
Of the 22 birds released in the first year (2004) it is believed that only 2 birds are still alive, a male and a female. Given that Great bustards don’t breed until they are 5 years old, it is unlikely that there will be any chicks born in the wild until 2010 at the earliest. With refinements to the attachment and style of radio transmitters used the 2005 birds have had a much higher survival rate. Most of those released in 2005 stayed close to the release site until the end of November or early December when they dispersed. Some birds went to Dorset and at least three went to France.
Great bustards in the UK. Photo Dave Kjaer. © Great Bustard Group.
'We know some of the Dorset birds have returned but others have reappeared and we have no idea where they have been'. Despite the birds being fitted with coloured wing tags and some of them fitted with radio transmitters, some of the birds have not been sighted anywhere since they left Salisbury Plain on 3rd December. 'It certainly proves we must assume the Bustards are alive even if there have been no reports for a while'.
Great bustard - Reintroduced into the UK on Salisbury Plain. Photo Martin Cade. © Great Bustard Group.
Where have they been?
Despite being very large birds they can be very secretive indeed. Two males who left Salisbury Plain on different dates were seen together in Dorset and returned to the Plain together. One female who was seen alone in Dorset in January returned with another female which had not been seen all winter. 'It is fascinating how they seem to find each other when they can be so elusive to humans'.

UK Great bustard quick facts

  • Became extinct in the UK in 1830s.
  • Being re-introduced from Russia.
  • They are omnivores, eating seeds, insects and small mammals.
  • Thought to live for up to 25 years.
  • Not known to have bred in captivity.
  • Appears on the county coat of arms of Wiltshire and Cambridgeshire.
Where to see Great bustards in the UK.
For anyone who wants to see Great bustards in the wild in the UK, the Great bustard project will be running guided tours of the release site from September once the new birds have grown. For anyone who can’t wait that long there are occasional sightings in Dorset and Somerset. The female 2004 bustard spent most of the winter in Somerset but has moved back to the project area in recent weeks.
Great bustard. © Great Bustard Group.
The Great Bustard
The Great Bustard is the world’s heaviest flying bird with old male birds regularly reported weighing as much as 20 kg. However, it is only the males that attain such huge proportions outgrowing females by up to 50 %, to stand over a metre tall with a wing-span of 260 cm. They are highly gregarious birds that form social units termed ‘droves’ although males and females will often group into separate droves.

Their great difference in size means that females are easily bullied, especially when feeding. As a result, males and females tend to live very independently only coming together at breeding time. The incubation and rearing of chicks is carried out by the female alone and the young birds will stay with the females for at least the first winter.
Great bustard worldwide status
The Great Bustard is recognised as being a Globally Threatened Bird. Formerly widespread throughout Europe, many populations of Great Bustards have become fragmented and disappeared since they hit their all-time low in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the past most English counties supported Great Bustards but the last confirmed breeding in the UK was 1832, in Suffolk. Although Great Bustards were certainly caught for food in historical times, their demise in most countries was due to relentless persecution in the form of hunting.

The current global population of Great Bustards is thought to be fairly stable with some populations possibly even increasing. What is cause for concern is the continual loss of suitable habitat due to change of land use, general human disturbance and agricultural intensification. Globally, there is still a gradual but noticeable contraction in their range so that in many regions the populations are becoming denser in an ever smaller area.

There are obvious problems that lie ahead for seriously fragmented populations and great potential for catastrophe if all your Bustards are ‘kept in one basket’. Consequently, several conservation projects have been set up throughout Europe working to secure and manage protected areas and revert areas to natural grasslands. Spain and Russia currently have the largest populations of Great bustards.

There are projects in Germany and Hungary releasing captive-reared birds to reinforce existing, small and previously declining populations. The UK project is unique because it is the first and only project to expand the global range of the species by reintroducing them to an area from which they have become extinct.
Great bustard in Wiltshire, photo Dave Kjaer. © Great Bustard Group.
Support the Great bustard project.
To find out more about the project and to keep up to date with news, visit the Great Bustard Group website and consider becoming a member of the Group. Membership costs £20 p.a. and includes quarterly newsletters and free guided tours of the release site. Non-members can also arrange a guided tour of the release site. NB all tours MUST be pre-arranged. Tours usually run from mid-September to April . You are guaranteed a view of Great Bustards as well as an opportunity to talk to project staff and also visit the shop. A visit to the site gives exclusive access to the hide, which is an excellent place to enjoy views of many of the UK's farmland and downland birds. Over 80 species of birds, including 17 species of raptors and owls, have been recorded around the release site!

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