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Reintroducing the great bustard to southern England

Great bustard

The overall objective of the project was to significantly increase the small population of great bustards on Salisbury Plain over the duration of the LIFE+ project, to start to establish a self-sustaining population in the UK.

The great bustard is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and European populations have been in long-term decline, only arrested by conservation projects in some areas. This project contributed to the conservation of the species in Europe. 

In the UK, the great bustard became nationally extinct when the last bird was shot in 1832. This iconic species of the Wiltshire landscape returned to the UK in 2004 when the Great Bustard Group initiated the 10-year trial reintroduction. The project sourced birds rescued from agricultural operations in Russia, with a plan to release 20 birds per year onto Salisbury Plain.

The project achieved early progress with females laying eggs in 2007 (though unfortunately they were infertile), and males reaching maturity in 2009. This was followed by the success of the first chicks to be hatched for over 175 years, with fledging achieved in the same year. Unfortunately, this chick did not survive its first winter.

Great bustards in the past occurred on chalk downland in central southern England and in the open sandy Brecklands of eastern England, and archaeological evidence shows that the species was native rather than introduced. In addition, great bustards from continental Europe moved to the UK during the colder months. Traditionally birds of expansive grass plains, they have adapted well to arable farming in some European countries. This ambitious project aimed to try and restore the species to the UK after an absence of almost 200 years. 

Project objectives

  • Significantly increase the population of great bustards on Salisbury Plain
  • Detailed monitoring to improve understanding of the interaction between released bustards and their environment
  • Development of a long-term strategy to guide future work on great bustards in the project area and elsewhere in the UK
  • Re-establishment of the great bustard as an integral part of the UK avifauna
  • Translocation of at least 20 juvenile great bustards from Russia each year
  • Management of the release area to maximise its value to great bustards year-round, and establishment of at least one new release area
  • Secure extensive areas of suitable habitat for great bustard across a wider area through the development and promotion of targeted options for inclusion within agri-environment schemes
  • Protection of bustards and their nests and eggs from threats such as disturbance, egg-collecting and predation
  • Communication and dissemination actions undertaken to develop a high profile for the project both in local communities and in key target areas
  • Links developed with projects targeting great bustards elsewhere in the EU to allow the multi-way exchange of experiences and lessons learned

Key dates so far

  • Sep 2010 - LIFE project began.
  • May 2011 - Two female great bustards nested and the project worked with the farmer to minimise disturbance of the nests. Both hatched successfully, but unfortunately no chicks fledged. No nests hatched during the following two breeding seasons.
  • Sep 2011 - Twenty-nine young bustards were released, some at a new release site for the first time. Four of these were recruited to the adult population.
  • Jun 2012 - For the first time, great bustard eggs were imported from Russia rather than chicks.
  • Sep 2012 - Eleven young bustards were released. Post-release survival at the new release site was far higher than observed in previous years (100% to 90 days), but followed by dispersal. At least two birds reached France, and only one juvenile was recruited to the adult population.
  • 2013 - No birds were released, as work took place to change the source population from Russia to Spain.
  • May 2014 - Fifty-four eggs were imported from Spain and reared in the UK.
  • Jun 2014 - Five females nested, and two nests were thought to have hatched, but no young fledged.
  • Aug 2014 - Thirty-three great bustards were released, the largest number achieved in the ten years of the project.
  • Nov 2014 - LIFE project ended. Please see greatbustard.org/life_project/ for more details.

Work planned or underway

In 2012, it became apparent that Russian great bustards would not be a viable source for the project, as they expressed too strong an instinct to migrate. In 2013, it was decided that the project should seek to use Spain as a donor population. This change was made for a number of reasons: 

  • It was found that Spanish great bustards were genetically more similar to the former population in the UK than had previously been believed.
  • Spanish great bustards show less of a long distance migration tendency than the Russian population. It was therefore considered a reasonable option to explore as a potential solution to the migration issues occurring in Russian birds.
  • A larger number of eggs could be transported from Spain, which has by far the largest great bustard population in the world, with recent population increases observed. As Spain is an EU country, the chicks would not have to endure a 30-day quarantine period once hatched. 

Delays associated with establishing links with Spain meant that no birds were imported into the UK in 2013. In spring 2014, 54 eggs were brought back to the UK from Spain and 33 birds were released at two sites in Wiltshire. Monitoring work is currently underway to assess the differences in dispersal between Spanish and Russian bustards. This will allow the project to determine if the changes made in the source population will help in establishing a truly wild population of great bustards in the UK. 

If this year’s release proves to be successful, the project still has many more goals to achieve in order to reach its objectives. The next goal to work towards is to address the breeding success rate seen in the reintroduced birds. A long-term strategy is being developed to look at ways conservation efforts in the UK can be applied to benefit the great bustard and what can be realistically achieved for this species in the UK after the end of the LIFE project.


Results

Re-introduction projects are complex.  As a result, the project has experienced a mixture of successes and set backs – though learning important lessons from both, to aid future conservation work. Progress against the central project objective of significantly increasing the population of great bustards on Salisbury Plain has been slow. The adult population was only five birds at the beginning of the LIFE project, and currently stands at nine, before the results of the 2014 release are known. Although breeding has taken place in every year since 2007, only one juvenile reached 100 days after hatching, and even this bird was not recruited to the adult population.

Major improvements have been made to every stage of the rear and release process with the aim of increasing post-release survival. Many changes were developed by sharing knowledge and experience with partners in Europe, especially in Germany. These included:

  • Importing eggs rather than chicks, removing the need for a stressful 48-hour journey at two months old and allowing release to take place earlier in the year.
  • Changes in diet to promote better body and feather condition.
  • Rearing facilities adapted, with the benefit of reduced quarantine requirements, to provide more light, space and access to natural habitat.
  • Rearing suits allowed greater contact with chicks during rearing without risk of birds becoming tame, and allowed the rearing process to extend beyond release, with supplemental feeding post-release for the first time.
  • Soft release techniques used to encourage released birds to stay as a group around their release site.
  • New release sites with lower predator populations and therefore reduced mortality due to predation immediately after release.
  • Use of temporary electrified netting to protect release sites and reduce the risk of collision.
  • Change in source population from highly migratory Russian population to shorter distance migrants from Spain.

Although immediate post-release survival has dramatically improved as a result of these improvements, the number of birds recruited to the adult population has not changed, due to the substantial mortality caused by dispersal. The effect of the final change, in source population, will be known in spring 2015.

The project has learnt a great deal about the habitat use and habitat requirements of great bustards in the UK. Habitat creation has been limited by the very low population, but has taken place on a small scale. In 2012, work began to create suitable nesting habitat for female bustards. In 2013, a bustard independently chose to nest in the habitat created by the project, having never nested in the area in the past, and in 2014 two bustards chose to use this habitat. Although none of these nesting attempts were successful, there is now much improved knowledge about how to create nesting habitat for great bustards through agri-environment schemes, should the population increase in the future.

The project has also managed to build up a detailed database on the distribution, ecology and behaviour of the bustards introduced to the UK. The data collected has been used in scientific papers which communicate the information gained from this project to other conservation projects, and are relevant to great bustard projects elsewhere in the EU. 


Who to contact

Leigh Lock
Senior Species Recovery Officer
E-mail: leigh.lock@rspb.org.uk

Partners

The RSPB, Great Bustard Group, University of Bath and Natural England form the project partnership.

Funding

The project partners are grateful to the EU LIFE+ Nature fund which kindly supported this project. Over the duration of the project, the EU LIFE+ Nature fund provided 75 per cent of the project costs, with partners providing the remaining 25 per cent themselves.

EU LifeGreat Bustard GroupNature 2000Natural EnglandUniversity of Bath