What we do
Image: David Kjaer
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Leigh LockSenior Species Recovery OfficerE-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The RSPB, Great Bustard Group, University of Bath and Natural England form the project partnership.
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.