The first great bustard chicks have now hatched since the reintroduction of the huge flying birds in 2004

It has been nearly two centuries since great bustard chicks last hatched in Britain, and now two nests have been have produced at least three chicks between them.

This latest attempt to bring the birds back from extinction has taken conservationists five years to bring to fruition, and they are understandably delighted. The great bustard was hunted to extinction in Britain – the last mother with chick was sighted in Suffolk, in 1832.

The bustard’s feathers were highly esteemed by fly-dressers, and the birds were once a common sight in East Anglia, Lincolnshire, the Yorkshire Wolds and on Salisbury Plain  – The bird even features on the Wiltshire coat of arms.

The exact location of the two nests on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire is being kept as a closely guarded secret, after the chicks were first identified on Sunday. Experts believe that the brood was probably hatched the day before, judging by their size and proficiency at rooting in the grass for food.

The great bustard is the heaviest flying bird, weighing in at around 18kg (40lb) and is also the largest of all European birds. There are eighteen adult great bustards living on or in close proximity to Salisbury Plain, and several others have flown to territories in surrounding southern Wiltshire, according to David Waters, founder and director of The Great Bustard Group.

Mr. Waters was open to the possibility that there might be further nesting sites close by those already identified. ‘We are really excited and are confident that other chicks will be found before the end of the week. We just don’t know how many nests there are or how many chicks.’

The reintroduction of the species was a boyhood dream of Mr. Waters’, having never forgotten seeing a pair of tame great bustards at Porton Down scientific research establishment.  The scientists in question were trying to stimulate a reintroduction of the species even then, but unfortunately failed.  

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In 2004, Mr. Waters negotiated with the then Animal Welfare Minister, Ben Bradshaw, for a licence to be granted allowing the importation of great bustard chicks from the Saratov region of East Volga, in Russia.

A delivery of between six and thirty-six chicks has subsequently been imported every August since then, onto Ministry of Defence-owned farmland in Wiltshire. Many of these were unfortunately too weak to survive, or fell prey to opportunistic foxes. Breeding has therefore been a rarity, Mr. Waters believes this is due to the youth of the males. Eggs have been laid in previous years, but have failed to hatch.

According to Dr Mark Avery, conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), this project plays a vital role in the future of what is now a ‘globally-threatened bird, which continues to decline across parts of Europe.’

In view of this, the Great Bustard Group must raise £130,000 a year, to pay for conservation work and reintroductions in Russia. The group have gained a licence that is valid for a decade, to bring bustards into the UK, but Mr. Waters warned that it could take many more years to establish a sustainable population.

Visits to see the great bustards on Salisbury Plain are arranged by the Great Bustard Group .

Great Bustard Facts

* Ornithologists killing the birds for specimens, as well as farming practices are thought to have been the main cause of the bustard’s decline in Britain. They were also popular to eat.
* Great Bustards have a life span of up to 25 years.
* The birds can be more than a metre tall, although while the males can weigh more than 20kg (44lb), the females are much smaller, weighing in at around 3 – 4 kg (6 – 9lb).
* The males and females live in entirely different flocks for most of the year, and mate in April.
* The bird nests on the ground leaving it vulnerable to predators, and lay 2 or 3 eggs at a time, which are reared by the females.
* Great Bustards can only fly for a maximum of about three miles, and must run along the ground in order to take-off.
* There are roughly 20,000 bustards in Europe, they are also found in China, Mongolia and the Ukraine.

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