The year is 1812, and it is spring. Green, rolling hills are awakening with new life as the sun starts to warm, and the chill winds soften. Then there they would be, Great Bustards taking part in a mating lek. Proceedings would be heralded by a great sneeze, then a rasping, guttural croak. The proud males, moustaches fluffed, and wings flared to reveal the bright white feathers, strut back and forth to catch the attention of an adoring female. Standing at around 3 feet tall, these large birds, normally rather shy, would delight in the presence of spring and fill the air with their strange, croaking love song. Those passing the pastures of North Hertfordshire would possibly not have realised that these bizarre birds would, unfortunately, all too soon be gone from the countryside for the foreseeable future.
The Great Bustard (Otis tarda) is believed to have been present in the UK from the early Holocene, around 11700 years ago. Several species make up the Otididae family, with the Great Bustard being the largest. In fact, it is the largest flying land bird and the worlds’ heaviest flying bird with males weighing up to 18kg. This weight means that these are not the quickest of birds. The name given to it by Pliny the Elder, avis tarda, means ‘slow bird’. However, this slowness does not mean that it is easy prey. They were known for being particularly wary of hunters, dispersing at the slightest sound, using their camouflaged feathers to hide them in the undergrowth. Suffolk fowlers created specialised ‘cribs’, small camouflaged hides on wheels pulled across fields via a pulley system. Concealed within, the fowlers would slowly approach flying birds, catching them unawares as they struck (Cocker and Mabey, Birds Britannica, 2005).
Reported to taste like a cross between a goose and a turkey, these huge birds were highly sought after for the dinner table. Whilst they were indeed difficult to catch, a period of intensive land enclosure in the 1840s meant that these large birds were facing a great reduction of the standard open spaces they require (Cocker and Mabey, Birds Britannica, 2005). As droves, the collective noun for Great Bustards, were placed under ever increasing agricultural pressures, these hunting efforts started to have a greater negative impact on their population numbers. Unfortunately, the Victorian passion for collecting acted as the final nail in the coffin. With its’ increasing scarcity, the price of eggs and skins rose, leading to an increased demand. There are various reports of the final bird in the UK but one of these last few was shot at Therfield Heath by 1832.
There have been various attempts to reintroduce these birds to the UK. The first attempt took place in Norfolk in 1900, followed by another in Porton Down, Wiltshire in the 1970s (Cocker and Mabey, Birds Britannica, 2005). Whilst both initial attempts failed, they did pave the way for the most recent introduction starting in 2004. Undertaken by the Great Bustard Group, with initial funding help from the RSPB, this project has been successful in re-establishing the Great Bustard in the UK on Salisbury Plain. Until 2013 the birds were sourced from the Russian Federation; eggs were taken from doomed nests and then incubated in an artificial system before being brought to the UK for release. However, in 2013 a decision was made to change the source population to eggs reared from Spanish stock. These eggs were sourced directly from successful nests, although early in the season to promote the production of a second clutch and further in situ populations. In order to prevent imprinting and keep natural human phobia in the chicks, they are fed by hand puppets designed to look like an adult Bustard and the rearing team also wear dehumanising suits prior to release. In 2014, 33 birds were released, and this stock showed a 50% survival rate over the first season, greater than both the previous Russian individuals and the expected survivability of a natural population. The UK population now stands at around 100 birds maintaining a self-sustaining population in Wiltshire.
There is definite promise that we may one day be able to see wild populations of these fantastic birds. And maybe that strange call will be the new indicator that spring is here once again.