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Britain's great bustards population set to take off thanks to EU funding boost

By David Hewitt - 20 Jan 2011 12:33:1 GMT
Britain's great bustards population set to take off thanks to EU funding boost

Image © EcoView - Image Courtesy of www.greatbustard.org

It was way back in 1832 that the great bustard finally went the way of the dodo and disappeared from the British Isles. Over-zealous gamekeepers and hunters, combined with a loss of habitat also led to the disappearance of the world's biggest flying bird from several other European countries at the turn of the 20th Century, among them France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Fast-forward almost two centuries and the great bustard is once again becoming established in Western Europe. Since 2004 conservationists have been working to reintroduce the birds to the UK, importing chicks from Russia and setting them free on Salisbury Plain, in the south of England, close to Stonehenge. Now, after having been lifted by the first hatching of Great Bustard chicks in the wild within the UK in the summer of 2010, the team behind the effort have been given a further boost in the shape of £1.8 million worth of fresh European Union funding.

It is intended that the money will be sufficient to cover around 75 per cent of the operating costs of the Great Bustard Group, a coalition of experts from the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), Natural England and the University of Bath. More specifically, the funds will be used to protect nests from egg collectors and to fit satellite transmitters to the birds, which can grow to stand over one metre tall and boast a wingspan of almost 2.5 metres.

Of course, it could be argued that, though nothing compared to the vast sums being spent by China to ensure the endurance of its native pandas, £1.8 million of European funding could be put to better use than protecting an 18-strong population of birds and attempting to re-establish an animal that is no longer considered a native species due to the fact it has been gone for so long. Ignoring the fact that the money comes from the EU's Life+ initiative, which was set up especially for such schemes, according to the experts behind the efforts, this short-term funding boost could help make the existing population self-sustaining in just a few years

"The funding will provide a properly resourced project, with four new posts, new monitoring equipment and even the possibility of a second release site," explains Great Bustard Group founder and director David Waters.

Looking further ahead, Bath University researcher John Burnside further adds: "As the population becomes established, their survival chances should hopefully get better - this project will be looking into ways of improving release methods and the survival of the birds in the long term."

As Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's conservation director notes, this is just the latest in a long list of initiatives geared towards "bringing back lost species to the UK". Among the biggest conservation success stories of the past couple of decades, not just in the UK but also in the whole of Europe, have been the re-introduction of the osprey and the red kite, both of had disappeared from the country. Additionally, the large blue butterfly, the corncrake and the pool frog have all been 're-introduced' and have steadily started to establish themselves in the wild.

Though there is certainly some opposition to such efforts, as the case of Scotland's new beavers only too effectively demonstrates, such re-introduction schemes are set to become more, not less frequent over the years ahead, not least due to the fact that governments signed up to the Convention on Biological Diversity are legally obliged to consider the restoration of native species to their former habitats. So, just as today supporters of the Great Bustard are toasting their good news, so too could advocates of the white-tailed eagle or the short-haired bumblebee be toasting a similar success in the not-too-distant future.