Two hundred years ago, a species disappeared from the landscape, the giant Great Bustard birds that bred on Salisbury Plain. Like so many marvellous living things, they had been hunted to death. The last one was reported shot in 1832. In a remarkable and uplifting conservation success story, the huge and magnificent birds have been brought back from extinction. Great Bustards are presumed to be the heaviest birds that can fly in the entire world. They can weigh an astounding 21 kg and grow a full metre in height. Their wingspan is 2.5 meters. With the latin name of Otis tarda, the males are particularly striking looking, with long white whiskers, emulating a walrus, and fan-cocked tails. As they lack an opposable hind claw, they have no ability to perch. This makes them completely reliant on being ground dwellers. They are entirely unrelated to other larger birds like geese and turkeys, but archeological remains prove that they have been around for much longer. Or had been. They were a renowned delicacy for the social elite at Medieval banquets. Bones were found when the Roman villa at Fishbourne in Essex was excavated.
Their comeback to the Salisbury Plain all began with a man who hated the phrase “Someone ought to do something.” He was David Waters, a retired policeman. So he did something. He set out to reintroduce the Great Bustard with a ten year plan to make them self-sustaining. Now they fly free on Salisbury Plain and raise their own young.
David had found out that he could acquire birds that had been rescued from agricultural operations in Russia. They were still vulnerable elsewhere on the globe, but not quite extinct.
In Russia, in the Trans-Volga region, vast swathes of land were being farmed for cereals. This had formerly been natural steppe grassland, the ideal territory for the Great Bustard. Unfortunately, as they nestled in among the cereal crops, their breeding season coincided with harvest time. Although they are huge, they are difficult to spot when sat on their nests in the long stalks, and they are reluctant to get up and fly. A great many were falling victim to the tractors.
Scientists in Russia were aware of the problem and had begun collecting and incubating eggs. Although they tried to start up captive bird breeding grounds in the former Soviet Union, none of their efforts had succeeded. The A.N. Severtsov Institute is now trying releasing them back into the wild, and this is working. It also provided the chicks for the british re-introduction scheme.
Their habitat on the Plain is a good place for protection. Much of the 94,000 acres is owned by the Ministry of Defence and used for live artillery practice and shelling, so access to many parts of it is restricted, and visitors are unwise if they stray off the marked paths. This helps keep the bustards relatively undisturbed. If Salisbury Plain had also by now been turned over to agriculture, it would not have been quite so amazing for the re-emergence of the Great Bustards.
It was 2004 when the first batch of Russian chicks were brought back and they take five years to reach maturity. In 2009 the first three genuine native chicks hatched out in their nests on the Salisbury Plain. The location of the nests had been kept a strictly guarded secret. More followed in 2010. The plan was taking off. This year the first of the British born will be old enough to breed themselves, thereby fully establishing the rebirth of the extraordinary bird that was once a common sight among the avifauna wildlife of chalk downlands.
Rather like young humans, young Giant Bustards like to go travelling before they reach the age to settle down and raise young. David Waters has had reports from them as far off as the north of France.
With their emormous wingspan, distance is no object for them once they fly, and Waters has noted that they do like to wander. Once old enough to breed, they head straight back to the release site. In flight, they never glide, but continue to flap their giant wings, making remarkably swift progress, despite the latin tag of their name “tarda” meaning slow.
Over the years Waters sometimes had a struggle to find enough money to put diesel in his Land Rover, never mind fund the ongoing conservation task he had set himself, but help came in various formats. In 2011 the project gt funding from the European Union (EU) which was a life-saver. He is now able to offer 90 minute tours to view the birds, but the location is never disclosed until visitors have pre-booked. People are always dissuaded from trying to search for them themselves. The Great Bustards are very shy, and if a flock gets startled and broken up, single birds are then susceptible to predators.
To listen to what a Great Bustard sounds like, use the link below for BBC Radio 4. They were recently featured as the “Tweet of the Day.”
As of last year there were a group of six adults who were very well established, with more still under protection in the release enclosures. Some of the younger ones were on their travels, but David Waters and his team hope to see them back again in the spring. Avid Great Bustard spotters regularly report back sightings. The amazing Great Bustards of Salisbury Plain are back for good.
By Kate Henderson