The Great Bustard: a UK Recovery Story

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Great Bustards on the ground in south Wiltshire. Image courtesy

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Great Bustard: a UK Recovery Story

The Great Bustard was a regular breeder in Britain for millennia, but by the 19th century, they had become extinct in central southern England. The Great Bustard Project reintroduced the birds in 1998 and has since become a UK wild bird success story. bustards on ground The Great Bustard: a UK Recovery Story
Great Bustards on the ground in south Wiltshire. Image courtesy

The Great Bustard is truly unique. It is the only living member of the genus Otis and is not only the largest land bird in Europe but it is also the heaviest-flighted bird in the world! With a wingspan of eight feet and a weight of up to 20 kilograms reported, this bird is powerful and omnivorous; it will feed on oil seed and grasses in winter and insects, seeds, frogs and lizards in summer.

The Great Bustard can survive in cold temperatures, and while some European and Asian subspecies possess a solid, powerful instinct to migrate, in the UK, the population is considered resident; they live there year-round.  Its favoured terrain is open grass plains (where it nests on the ground), farmland, bare earth patches and salt marshes.

The Great Bustard Project is a conservation project that aims to introduce the species back to England. It was started by David Waters, a local citizen who wanted to reintroduce the Great Bustard to Wiltshire and to see them thrive in all the UK areas where they originally made their home. Rendered locally extinct in the mid-19th century due to overhunting, the birds were an integral part of the local ecosystem, and their return helps to restore ecological balance. They are culturally important in the areas they once roamed; the Wiltshire flag displays a Great Bustard, as does the Cambridge County coat of arms.

The Great Bustard Project started in 1998 and has been a conservation success story, with the first Great Bustard chick hatched in 2009. This was an excellent achievement for the project as it shows that through dedicated effort, a community-led project has been able to reintroduce the unique bird to its native England. The bird is no longer locally extinct, however, the Great Bustard is listed as Vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species.

The Great Bustard project is based in the Salisbury Plain area of Wiltshire, and most of the range is within a restricted military location, significantly reducing interactions with people. Carers wear dehumanization suits so that the birds do not become habituated to humans, but the suits are not shaped like giant birds. Instead, they are inanimate objects that will have no meaning for the birds in the wild. When feeding chicks, the carers use hand puppets sewn to look like a Great Bustard to prevent the babies from imprinting on humans. When ready, these hand-reared chicks easily join adult flocks and act just like wild birds, rightfully fearful of humans. The bustard population receives no supplementary feeding and is not contained or restrained. 

The Great Bustard project has released birds at three locations across the region up to 15 miles apart and reports interaction between the three populations. All three groups are reproducing, and the UK population is now growing on its own.

The Great Bustard Project has a website where visitors can learn more about the project and the birds, but if you want to see one in real life, there is also a visitor hide where people can watch the birds fly freely.

The Great Bustard Group also has patronage by HRH The Prince of Wales, but it relies on volunteers and financial contributions from supporters. For more information, please visit the Great Bustard Group website.

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