The recovery of the Bittern from 11 booming males in 1997 to 140 today did not happen by magic.  It's a great conservation story that some people now take for granted.  But, before I did my interview with the Today programme this morning (which I assume will appear here at some stage), I reflected on what has made the conservation story so successful.

1. The law: unfashionable as it may be to say it, when the Bittern was listed on Annex 1 of the EU Birds Directive (which like its sister directive for Habitats and Species is now under threat - see here) 35 years ago, the UK was given an obligation to provide special conservation measures to help achieve so called favourable conservation status.   This helped to secure...

2. Political commitment: successive governments have made commitments to protect the Bittern.  In particular, the UK Biodiversity Action Plan which was launched 20 years ago by the Conservative Environment Secretary, John Gummer, included species targets for threatened species like the Bittern.  This helped to galvanise the conservation community and government agencies to work together to restore wildlife.

3. Funding: Two 5-year EU Life projects helped to provide much needed impetus first by getting to grips with the ecological needs of the species and then to help provide new reedbed habitat.  Today 1,500 hectares of new reedbed habitat have been created which is not only good for Bittern, but a host of other reedbed species from Water Vole and Great White Egret to rare invertebrates such as the Small Dotted Footman moth.

4. A Plan: concern about climate change and the loss of coastal wetlands, encouraged us to find available areas safe from sea level rise.  The strongholds for the species on the East Anglian coast needed to be complemented by new sites.  This provided the impetus to convert carrot fields (eg Lakenheath) and peat extraction sites (Ham Wall) into reedbed and within about ten years, habitat suitable for nesting Bittern.

5. Willing partners: big country-wide conservation projects rely on good collaboration between a huge range of organisations and the success of the Bittern is no exception. The National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and Natural England have been core partners and it is great to celebrate this species success story together.

6. Expertise, dedication and hard work: any conservation project requires good science to work out why a species is in trouble and what to do about it.  You then need vision and expertise to then create new sites before the skill of management from staff and volunteers kicks in.  Hundreds of peoples will inevitably have contributed to the success of the species.

7. Inspiration: the work continues and we need to inspire others to do more. We are doing this by showing off our success at our sites, through the media but also through producing reports such as "Bringing Reedbeds to Life" (see here) which draws on the experience gathered over the past twenty years to help others create and manage reedbeds.

I have probably missed out a few key important elements, but it gives you a flavour of what's needed.  More importantly, it gives hope that we can recover threatened species provided, of course, we protect the laws that protect our nature...

  • I have a similar story, Nightjar.  This spring, I was with the family at Minsmere.  A group were at the far end of the Island Hide looking at a bittern through a scope.  The kids had a great view and the friend I was with turned to a lady and asked if she wanted to have a look.  Her response was "no thanks, I see them all the time".  It's amazing how quickly we take things for granted.

  • When I started birdwatching you had to go to Minsmere and wait - and wait - and wait - possibly for several days for a Bittern to poke its head out for maybe a few seconds in front of the island hide. There was nowhere else to go in the UK. So it is really quite amazing to me to be able to watch a male Bittern pursuing a female for maybe 20 minutes over the Somerset levels in the spring. Now we know the system, whats to stop us applying the same approaches to every habitat ?

  • Great work RSPB. Immense credit to all concerned for what was a difficult and very complex project to save the bittern for now and future generations.

    As you  say it is so vital that the we continue to protect the laws that protect nature.