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Reintroducing the great bustard to southern England

Male great bustard

Image: David Tipling

The overall objective of the project is to significantly increase the small population of great bustards on Salisbury Plain over the five years 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 will contribute to 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 Director of the Great Bustard Group, David Waters, established 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 had early success with females laying infertile eggs in year three, males reaching maturity in year five followed by the first chicks to be hatched for over 170 years fledging in the same year.     

The great bustard was originally a locally common and widely distributed breeding species in many parts of the UK. It occurred on chalk downland in central southern England and in the open sandy Brecklands of eastern England. In addition, great bustards from continental Europe moved to the UK during the colder months.

Traditionally birds of expansive grass plains (steppe), they have adapted well to modern agricultural landscapes. They are frequently found in semi-cultivated/managed grasslands, arable farmland and traditional lowland hay meadows.

Great bustards favour lowlands, river valleys, and undulating open country, avoiding steep or rocky terrain, deserts, wetlands, forests, and savannas or parklands with more than isolated or small clumps of trees. Arable fields bearing crops such as oilseed rape, kale and lucerne now apparently appear to be more attractive than natural steppe, although farmland areas with high agricultural disturbance near human settlements are often avoided.

Archaeological evidence shows that the species was native rather than introduced.

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
  • Formulation and promotion of agri-environment options to improve the suitability of the 'wider countryside' for great bustards
  • 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
  • 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
  • Rigorous monitoring programme to improve knowledge of bustard distribution, ecology and behaviour
  • Communication and dissemination actions undertaken to develop a high profile for the project both in local communities and in key target
  • 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

  • Jan 2011 - Press release highlighted the new project and EU funding; presentation to LIFE Kick-off meeting for new (UK, Irish, Danish, Swedish) projects, hosted by EU Commission reps, London
  • Feb 2011 - Articles in Wilts BAP newsletter, Chalk Country newsletter and Otis, magazine of Great Bustard Group; Neil Wilkie, External Monitor and link with Commission - positive first visit to project; positive meeting with local Natural England staff re ELS/HLS for bustards
  • Mar 2011 - Technical Working Group (TWG) No.1: 'Nest protection & nest monitoring'. Twenty-four attendees including the new director and head of research of the Saratov Institute, Russia and presentations by Al Dawes, GBG and Zsölt Vegvari from the Hungarian great bustard project
  • Apr 2011 - Great Bustard LIFE webpage went live; tractor cab stickers developed and sent out to 700 farm contacts (nearly 400 via NFU); a new LIFE project logo was developed; networking team trip to Austria Great Bustard LIFE project. Project team visited the Austrian Great Bustard LIFE+ project to learn about how agri-environment schemes in Austria are successfully creating habitat for bustards in special bustard areas, and how the population is expanding its range due to burying of overground powerlines
  • May 2011 - two female great bustards nested in a winter wheat crop, the project worked with the farmer to withhold further field operations and both hatched successfully. Unfortunately both chicks were predated - probably by foxes; one at 14 days the other at 28 days
  • June 2011 - Richard Benyon MP visited project, lobbied re schedule1 and AES target species. First Project Demonstration Event: 15 Natural England Somerset staff and volunteers. Positive meeting with Natural England staff regarding agri-environment options for great bustards. Great Bustard to be noted in revised Statement of Potential for Salisbury Plain & West Wiltshire Downs. A package of measures agreed among project partners, based on currently available options. LIFE Inception report completed and sent to EU.
  • Jul 2011 - TWG No2: 'From hatching to release, effects on condition and survival'. Twenty-five attendees including Carl Jones, Durrell and Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, Murray Williams, NZ Wildlife and Conservation Service and presentations by David Waters, Torsten Langgemach, Brandenburg great bustard project and Damon Bridge, Crane project. Local tractor supplier, C&O of Wilton, agreed with New Holland to sponsor the project with a brand new tractor every year of the project at no cost! This will be a tremendous aid for management of the release pen. Monitoring Framework for the project period completed by University of Bath. Farmer advisory leaflet produced to provide information on habitat provision and management for great bustards. A new release site agreed and confirmed with private landowners.
  • Aug 2011 - 35 young bustards imported to be held in quarantine for 30 days
  • Sep 2011 - 30 birds released from quarantine and placed in soft release pens for one week before final release. Project promotional flyer produced with 2,500 to be disseminated

Work planned or underway

With help from Natural England, bustard-friendly habitat options are being developed to be implemented through the ELS and HLS agri-environment scheme. Work with the landowner of the new confidential release site to agree predator control strategy, and deploy electrified fox-proof fencing around the perimeter of the release field, and erect soft-release pens within the field these also having fox-proof electrified fencing surrounding them.

Monitoring and reporting against several key changes made this year to increase survival of the young bustards, especially through the key period between release and December.

New project noticeboards are being developed for the visitor release site and the Hawk Conservancy.


All new staff recruited by 1 March: Project Manager, Project Adviser and Monitoring Officer.

New CCTV was installed in the release pen allowing unobtrusive and close-up footage of behaviour. With help from the NFU, tractor cab stickers have been developed and issued to over 600 farms in the project area to help identify and report great bustards.

The release pen saw amazing displays of the dominant male great bustard P5 (purple tag = 2007 released bird) in late March through to May. This attracted up to four other birds, including females Y22 (2005) and R28 (2008). Both these females later nested in a winter wheat crop.

With the help of the farmer, and constant monitoring, eggs of both nests hatched. Unfortunately, the single chick of both females was predated by foxes. The adult females are very hard to find once they leave the nest area and can move their young long distances each day.

Although predator control is practiced by the local farming community, predation of ground-nesting birds by foxes is still the biggest problem.

Who to contact

Tracé Williams
Great Bustard LIFE Manager


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


The project partners successfully applied to the EU LIFE+ Nature fund, and over the next five years will receive 75 per cent of £1.8 million, having to find the other 25 per cent themselves to complete the project and draw down the funding.

EU LifeGreat Bustard GroupNature 2000Natural EnglandUniversity of Bath