Numbers of Britain’s loudest bird reach record high

Harry Bellew

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Bittern in water

Britain’s loudest bird – which was on the brink of extinction in Britain 20 years ago – has enjoyed its best year since records began, according to a new survey by the RSPB.

Since 2006, there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of bitterns making their home in Britain. This year numbers reached record levels once more with 188 males recorded at 82 sites. This compares to 164 at 71 sites in 2017, a positive sign that bitterns are back from the brink and thriving in Britain.

With their well camouflaged, pale, buffy-brown plumage, bitterns are highly secretive birds that spend most of their time hiding in dense stands of reed. They had completely disappeared in Britain by the 1870s, before recolonising early in the 20th Century. However, they found themselves back on the brink in 1997 when numbers dropped to 11 males.

Simon Wotton, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, said: “We count bitterns by listening for their distinctive booming call, and every year more and more bitterns are making newly created or restored wetlands their home and to raise young.

“The recovery of this elusive bird is a remarkable conservation success and shows what can be achieved through targeted efforts to restore and create more of their favoured habitat. To go from being on the brink of extinction to having close to 200 booming males in 20 years – at a time when many other species are in decline – highlights how effective this project has been.”

The number of booming males in Somerset increased again, from 49 to 55 boomers, with similar increased recorded in the Fens and the Norfolk broads to record figures. Their impressive call was also heard at five news sites across the country. 

Bitterns, along with a number of other species, have long benefited from EU laws that protect their habitat. More than half of Britain’s breeding bittern population occur within Special Protected Areas (SPAs), however, the rest of the vulnerable population make their home on sites without legal protection. 

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “With their foghorn-like song and cryptic yet distinctive plumage, bitterns are one our most charismatic birds. Their astonishing recovery from the brink of extinction is a real conservation success story, but we must ensure it isn’t done in vain. As the UK has voted to leave the EU, we must safeguard their future as a breeding species in the UK by bolstering the laws that protect nature and replacing the funds that will be lost.”

Bittern numbers have also been boosted in recent years with funding from two EU LIFE projects that have helped secure their future as a breeding species in the UK. 

Bitterns are a secretive bird, very difficult to see, as they move silently through the reeds at the water’s edge, looking for fish. If you keep your eyes peeled you might be lucky to spot one at a number of RSPB nature reserves in Somerset, East Anglia and Yorkshire. To find a reserve close to you, visit 

Tagged with: Country: UK Topic: Birds and wildlife Topic: Conservation Topic: Habitat conservation Topic: Site conservation Topic: Species conservation