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- Bitterns are bouncing back again with a fantastic 228 booming males counted during their last breeding season.
- They have also bred successfully for the first time at RSPB Saltholme Nature Reserve in Teesside – their most northernly breeding record.
- Bitterns, the UK’s loudest bird, became extinct in the UK in the 1870s due to persecution and draining of their wetland habitat for agriculture.
Bitterns have had another great breeding season in the UK with 228 booming males counted in 2022, according to new survey results from the RSPB and Natural England.
Bitterns are dependent on reedbed habitats as they move through them at the water's edge, seeking out fish, insects, and amphibians to eat. They are the loudest bird in the UK - the males make a remarkable far-carrying booming sound in spring which can be heard three miles away and is used to establish territories and attract female mates through the season. Bitterns are well-camouflaged so the most reliable way to count them in the breeding season is to listen for this song.
This secretive member of the heron family became extinct in the UK in the 1870s due to over-hunting for food and draining of their wetland homes for agriculture.
The species returned to Norfolk in 1900 but dropped again to just 11 booming males by 1997, leaving them on the edge of a second national extinction. A research programme by the RSPB investigated the needs of the birds. A key part of bringing Bittern numbers back up was recreating, managing and protecting their wetland habitats.
Simon Wotton, RSPB senior conservation scientist, said: “Many wetlands were drained in the 19th and 20th centuries to make space for agriculture, leaving the Bittern fewer and fewer places to breed. One of the aims of the Bittern work since 1990 was to create and restore suitable wetlands away from the coast – to create safe sites that wouldn’t be affected by the effects of climate change such as rising sea levels. Rewetting these spaces also helps prevent flooding and fights the climate crisis – wetlands are incredible carbon sponges, with coastal wetlands locking in more carbon that forests. A win-win for the nature and climate crises”
Although the same number of males were counted in last year’s survey, the population is booming. Over half of the UK’s Bittern population can be found on RSPB reserves, with some managed predominantly for their reedbeds to attract rare wetland birds such as Bittern, Crane and Great White Egret.
RSPB Salthome, on Teesside, is one of these sites and its conservation efforts were rewarded with its first breeding success last year, making it the most Northern UK record so far in its recent history. Although most of the records are in England (with a few in Wales), Bittern were once found in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and there is hope that they will once again find themselves there.
Although bitterns are still a rare bird, there are some great places to experience them first-hand:
- Ouse Fen, Cambridgeshire
- Avalon Marshes, Somerset – Ham Wall, Shapwick Heath, Westhay Moor
- Lakenheath Fen, Suffolk
- Minsmere, Suffolk
- Leighton Moss, Lancashire
- St Aidan’s, West Yorkshire
- Cors Ddyga, Anglesey, Wales
- Newport Wetlands, Wales
Monitoring programmes such as the Bittern survey are essential for effective conservation and could not be carried out without the help of thousands of volunteers who give their time for nature. More than 12,000 people volunteer for the RSPB, taking action to make a positive impact for nature and the environment. For more information on how to help save nature at home, at work, at school and in the community, visit www.saveourwildisles.org.uk