At a time of reducing funding for nature conservation it is good to be able to talk about some good news.  An ambitious programme to return the world’s heaviest flying bird to the UK has been given a considerable lift from the European Union by the award of a €2.2m grant from the EU LIFE+ fund.

The project is run by a partnership of the Great Bustard Group, the RSPB, University of Bath and Natural England. 

The Great Bustard Group, which has led the project since its inception in 2004, has battled to cover the costs of the project with a hand-to-mouth existence.
Releasing great bustards reared from eggs rescued in southern Russia, the project passed a milestone in 2009, when the it saw the first great bustard chicks to hatch in the wild in the UK for 177 years.

Despite our great successes over the last six years we would sometimes struggle to find £10 or £20 to put diesel in the old Land Rover; now we have the chance to give this project real wings,” says David Waters GBG Director.  He continued: “The funding will provide a properly-resourced project, with four new posts, new monitoring equipment and even the possibility of a second release site.”

David Waters added: “The Great Bustard Group is anxious to point out that the grant will not end the funding worries as a quarter of the project costs will need to be found by the project partners, and the LIFE project is very much about new work. Much of the existing work will need to be funded as before.”

Richard Benyon, Natural Environment Minister, said: “This is a great project – it will see a magnificent species return to England as well as help to conserve the other dry grassland birds of Salisbury Plain. The people working on this project have been doing a wonderful job, and deserve congratulations on their success so far.”

Reintroduction projects are not uniformly popular with conservationists or birders.  Generally speaking I am a fan of them.  Perhaps it's simplistic but I see them as the species equivalent of habitat restoration - such as re-creating reedbeds in the Fens.  We know we've lost lots of habitats so we need to protect the ones we still have and re-create some of the ones we have lost.  And similarly, we know we've lost some species so we need to protect the ones we still have and reintroduce some of the ones we have lost if they won't come back on their own.  That's how I see it.

But of course the work to protect the less charismatic farmland birds continues too - with the prospect of less government support in the future.  The RSPB is working on a host of declining farmland birds such as corn bunting, turtle dove and lapwing.  And that work continues too.  Reintroductions are a bit of a luxury - at the moment one that, with help from the EU, we can afford, but maybe not for ever if funding continues to fall.

And this EU money is difficult enough to get, and the rules on what type of project it can be spent on are sufficiently strict and circumscribed, that if any of it goes on saving EU threatened birds then that is to be welcomed in my view.  There are few enough pots of money around, and each of them seems to be getting smaller,  

  • Lazywell - Badgers are protected by law so are birds of prey and other mammals like Polecats making a great come back in the UK even when shooting estates try to wipe them out. If this scheme needs heavy predator control well may be it should not be taking place here. The original folk against this scheme also were worried about the survival of these birds in the UK.  Another great example of illegal predatory control comes from Bowland where Eagle Owls were taking hedgehogs as prey. At Geltsdale no hedgehogs were ever taken as their is a healthy population of Badgers. Most shooting estates kill Badgers regardless of the law. Many end up at the side of roads to make them look like road kills.

  • I too welcome the grant and wish the project every success. But you are quite right, Sooty, about the impact of predation on bustard populations. The young are particularly susceptible. We have seen that with the reintroductions that have already taken place in this country over the past few years. And in Germany, for example, 50 young birds were released in the summer of 2005 and 13 hatched in the wild, but a year later only six of these birds (10%) had survived. The juvenile losses were due mainly to predation by foxes, white tailed eagles and ravens.

    Meanwhile, in Hungary, where there has been a long running bustard project, a programme of predator control was introduced in 2005 to reduce the number of predators such as foxes, badgers, hooded crows and magpies.

    I do hope that some of this £1.8m EU grant will be spent on carefully targeted predator control, as well as monitoring, habitat management and PR.

  • Lucky enough with great help from RSPB staff to see the cranes fly into feed on levels,just arrived at perfect spot and within 15 mins they flew in about 19 or 20,could not believe our luck as first day out after new hip but another case of brilliant RSPB staff.  

  • That's how I see it too Mark. What surprises me is the strength of feeling against some of the reintroduction projects - after all, no one is going to be forced to watch these birds. Any birder unlucky enough to be on the Somerset Levels when a flock of Cranes flies by, or on Salisbury Plain when a Bustard shows, can always look away.

  • Good luck but my guess is this will only work with a really serious control of fox and badger would be very interested in what the position on this is in release area as these birds will not have the natural instincts taught by natural parents.Told today can see a Bustard for £10 and yesterday saw hundreds of Avocets for nothing,again just the word on the street and plenty of that about.