Thursday, 24 October 2013

Return of the Great Bustard?

In a stubbly yellow field in Wiltshire there is a rectangular enclosure, perhaps five hundred metres long and one hundred metres deep. Inside the fence are a series of strips, some of flowers, some of crops, others of bare, rough earth. All round the fence the dull ochre of the Salisbury Plains stretches away, an endless swaying sea of grass. Scanning the boundaries through my binoculars, I see them, their long grey-brown necks rising up through from the undergrowth, topped with small heads and pointed beaks. They remind me a little of miniature versions of the ostriches I saw on my friend's farm in Ireland. They have the same sparse feathers and slightly prehistoric throats. As I look around the field I spot other birds, my eye honing in. There are several males out in the open, stretching their vast wings, orange flecked with white and even blue. These may weigh up to 40 lbs, making them among the heaviest flying birds in the world. On the roof of the little hide I am in is a wooden cut out of a Great Bustard in flight. It must be an inspiring spectacle. The females are a little smaller and duller in colour, like great brown geese.

Great Bustards, like so many other animals, were once common right across Europe and where found throughout southern Britain, as far north as Yorkshire. Famed for their size, late medieval cookbooks include them in recipes for birds-stuffed-within-birds, the grandest of which begins with a bustard. While many were killed for food or feathers, changes in farming practice also took their toll. Bustards are birds of steppe and farmland, and had probably greatly increased in numbers as the forest had been cleared over the centuries. However just as it had encouraged their expansion, so new technology contributed to their collapse. The introduction of horse-drawn ploughs meant that eggs were no longer safe in the fields where they were laid, and as agriculture became ever more mechanised and intensive their numbers dwindled. As with the Great Auk, the flightless penguin of the North Atlantic, the mania for specimens in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century sealed their fate, as egg collectors descended on the last few populations. The final records of Great Bustards in Britain were in the 1840s and the species likely went locally extinct shortly afterwards.

Fortunately populations have persisted elsewhere, particularly in Spain and Russia, and beginning in the late 1970s plans were made to try and return the species to Salisbury Plain, a large area of grassland and rolling hills in the south of England. Covering an area of around 800 square kilometres, much of land is owned by the Ministry of Defence and used for military training exercises. On live firing days the sounds of gunfire and artillery can be heard for miles around, while cycling through country lanes one is met with comically lopsided signs warning of 'tanks crossing'. As a result, the Plain is partially out of bounds to the public, and there are relatively few roads or villages in the area. Combined with the large areas arable farming around its fringes this makes the plain a good candidate for Great Bustard reintroduction.

Initial attempts at reintroduction focused on captive breeding of birds from eggs, but these were unsuccessful. Young birds borne in captivity were unable to survive in the wild, and quickly died. It was during these initial attempts in the 1970s that Dave Waters, the driving force behind current reintroduction efforts, was to first encounter the birds, during a visit to Porton Down with his father. Later, when the project was being cancelled, he asked for permission to continue it. He was told he was welcome to do so as long as he understood there was no money, no land an no birds. Mortgaging his house and selling his collection of vintage motorbikes, Dave founded the Great Bustard Project in 1998. While the situation was difficult, one thing had changed since the earlier attempts. The Cold War was over, and suddenly the prospect of introducing birds from Russia seemed like a realistic option. At that time the Eastern birds were thought to be the genetically closest population to Britain's extinct population and from 2004 to 2011, about 140 chicks were brought in from the Volga Basin, quarantined and then released into a fox-proof enclosure in Salisbury from there they were free to go where they wished.

Predictably, the majority of the birds have died or disappeared, but the staff at the project estimate that around 20 still live on Salisbury Plain, although good numbers are hard to come by. The Bustards have spread widely too, with individuals cropping up in Somerset, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and even across the Channel in France. While this is encouraging, politics is preventing further imports from Russia, as relationships with the UK have cooled. To keep the project going, it is hoped that more chicks might be brought in from Spain, which maintains the largest populations in Western Europe. In fact more up-to-date genetics tests suggest that the Spanish birds might be a closer match to Britain's ancestral populations, although any differences are likely to be minor.

Looking back through my binoculars it is hard not to share the enthusiasm of the Bustard Project. To have such large birds strutting about the fields is a thrilling prospect. So too is the manner in which it has been done – no trials or exit strategies have been devised, no satellite monitoring devices weigh the animals down. The birds have simply been returned, given a safe place to acclimatise and then largely left alone. One concession which has been made are the large wing tags they sport, colour coded to show their year of release. Even these are not certain though, and many birds have managed to slip them off, becoming the first truly wild members of their family in these wheat fields for nearly two hundred years. The real challenge for the project will be in finding sufficient habitat for these birds. While well adapted to farmland, they need to be left alone to nest and raise their young. In England's intensively managed south, it remains to be seen if there is sufficient room for the true return of the Bustard, or if they will, at most, find refuge in a few little pockets and reserves, forever strangers in their former domains.

For someone like me who as long been a strong advocate of rewilding - the policy of returning species to their former range, and allowing land to recover to a more wild and natural ecosystem - the Great Bustard is a good example of the need for range of approaches. In many areas rewilding may mean the decline of some farmland species. Allowing sheep-stripped hills to recover to scrub and forest will naturally affect the tiny number of species which depend on short, bare grass, but will of course benefit many others which need trees and cover. All the more reason then that those areas of the country which will always be farmed (we need food after all) to practice the most environmental sound farming we can find. Rewilding is a cascade. It is about making room for wildlife and the species which surround us, whether through reforested hills, no-fishing zones in the oceans, or through providing little spaces around the edges of fields where the largest flying birds in the world can raise their chicks.

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