The world’s heaviest flying animal, the great bustard, was once abundant in England from York to the south coast. A combination of egg collection and persecution drove the bird to extinction in Britain in 1832.
Otis tarda (Otis referring to the wheat-like appearance of males’ facial feathers) is now classed as globally vulnerable by the IUCN. While Iberian populations appear stable, Eastern European, Russian and central Asian populations are in persistent decline due to the ubiquitous trio of habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Once widespread across Eurasia, the great bustard is now left in scattered pockets throughout its former range with around 50,000 individuals worldwide.
This brings me to a grey May morning deep in the Wiltshire countryside. Here, nestled between MoD firing ranges and intensive arable farmland stretching to the horizon of Salisbury plain, the Great Bustard Group has embarked upon a re-introduction programme. Since 2004 a handful of new birds have been introduced each year to produce a cohort of mixed ages. The current population is small with around 20 birds in total, but appears stable. In May 2009 a female successfully fledged two chicks in Britain for the first time in over 180 years.
The protection of the site has apparently benefited other species; a pair of stone curlews feed a fledgling chick a gigantic worm, and my first corn bunting springs from the roadside in pursuit of flying insects driven low by the incessant drizzle.
A ground nesting species, great bustards have moved from their natural grassland and steppe habitat, readily establishing amongst arable cropland. Under low intensity management and traditional agricultural practices the great bustard is well suited to the farmed environment. As intensification and mechanisation have spread globally over the last century, the great bustard along with many farmland species has not fared so well.
The efforts of the Great Bustard Group are a fantastic start for great bustard restoration, with several sites proposed for future introduction. However, it is clear that for a truly viable population a dramatic shift in the agricultural status quo is essential, and fast. The 2013 State of Nature Report provides a grim synthesis of the situation facing UK wildlife in all habitats, including farmland with around 60% of species in persistent decline.
This has largely been driven by a sorry mess of subsidised habitat destruction in the name of agricultural intensification under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Since the 1980s agri-environmental schemes (AES) have been the key mechanism for combating this damage, delivering funds for farmers to protect important species and habitats. The State of Nature Report documents some success stories, including for the stone curlew. However, AES lie within “Pillar II”, which has suffered overall from persistent underfunding. The bulk of subsidies are directed through Pillar I, mainly providing farm income support with little incentive for proactive, ecologically coherent farming for nature. Despite lobbying by NGOs and environmental groups, the 2013 CAP reform did not deliver the ecological improvement many hoped for. Instead, “greening measures” within Pillar I have further channeled the focus, and the money, away from Pillar II and AES.
The successful great bustard introduction programme is a testament of the determination and hard work of the Great Bustard Group. Given the right support and a much needed move to ecologically sound farming techniques, it may not be too long before great bustards regain their rightful status as part of the British countryside.