"The indications are that the population is almost certainly self-sustaining now, but we don't yet have the firm evidence to say it definitely is."
David Waters speaks in a welcoming voice, doused moderately in West Country twang. It's a warm July morning and, while the vista beyond the window behind where I'm sitting makes me feel like I'm on the Spanish steppes, for David it's just another day in the office.
The Great Bustard Project is something of an enigma. Unlike the slickly marketed and, at times, hard-to-ignore communications of other reintroduction projects, there seems to be a humble sense of getting the job done out here on the south Wiltshire plains, where Great Bustards have been released annually since 2004.
A group of displaying male Great Bustards look at home on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. The Great Bustard Project has worked hard against the odds to create such a spectacle in England (Great Bustard Group).
Throughout my conversation with him, David's passion and enthusiasm are clear. The Great Bustard Project is not an intensive PR job; this is perhaps why segments of the British birding scene have cast unconvinced stares towards it in the past. Cries of "plastic", "it will never work" and the inevitable "the money would be better spent elsewhere" have all been heard by David plenty of times. However, having spent a morning with him, there is no denying that the Great Bustard Project has undertaken an honourable job during the last decade and a half, with little or no support from conservation or government bodies. And – against the odds – they are seemingly on the verge of establishing a self-sustaining population of wild Great Bustards in southern England.
Great Bustard's place in Wiltshire history is beyond doubt. After all, it is the county's official bird and features on the Wiltshire coat of arms. A stuffed Great Bustard is found in the county hall and the bird can be found on the badges of army cadets and Girl Guides in the region.
As a young boy interested in wildlife, David says he felt saddened by the species' absence. "We used to have them, and I was so upset they were gone, but was pleased it wasn't on a global scale. Something could be done about the British extinction." This passion sowed the early seeds of the Great Bustard Project, which was set up in 1998 by David. Based on the feasibility study, in 2003, DEFRA issued a 10-year trial-licence to release Great Bustards in the UK.
The rolling fields and big, open skies of Salisbury Plain could be mistaken for the Spanish steppe: ideal bustard habitat (Josh Jones).
During this trial period birds were sourced via an egg-rescue scheme in Russia. The project couldn't get a licence to obtain Iberian birds due to an assumption they would be genetically more different to the historic British population. So it was in the Saratov region in south-west Russia where things began – and it didn't take long for difficulties to mount. At the time, Russia lacked a laboratory deemed suitably equipped against avian influenza by the British government, so the birds were subject to lengthy quarantine.
"They spent 24 hours in crates to Moscow, followed by a day of paperwork, six hours at Heathrow and then 30 days of quarantine," explains David. "The condition of some birds in the early years wasn't great. Looking back at pictures, yeah, it's a bit embarrassing – I wouldn't release them now."
The alternative was to keep the birds in pens, but they'd become very tame. This was the case with 'Gertrude', whose desire to hang around with humans at Stonehenge attracted some of that 'plastic' criticism. In the early days, Natural England was insistent on transmitters being used, but the bustards would outgrow the harnesses and, ultimately, the devices would negatively impact them. "I don't think playing around with transmitters taught us anything," David says.
In autumn and winter, droves of bustards flock together on the vast expanses of the plain, often preferring winter crops and stubble to grassland (Mike Trew).
The first few years of the project were peppered with moments of trial and error, and for many it was an easy opportunity to denounce the scheme. There were even ludicrous rumours of groups of bustards flying out to the Atlantic and dying – all nonsense. "There was some utter rot written about the dispersal of the Russian birds," David irritably recalls.
A crucial turning point came in 2014. Having collected blood samples from stuffed Great Bustards that were of presumed British heritage, a genetic study was undertaken. It found that the lost British population was a closer match to Iberian birds than Russian. This meant the project could now source birds from Spain, which would prove to be blissful work in comparison to the trials and tribulations of moving bustards from Russia.
The project set up egg-collecting partnerships with the governments of two autonomous Spanish regions: Castilla y León and Castilla-La Mancha. "We decided to take all the eggs from a clutch, but would do so early in the season with the idea the female would lay a second clutch. If Great Bustards lose chicks they won't nest again, but if they lose eggs they will," David informs me.
Dehumanisation outfits and puppets are used to feed young birds before they are released into the wild (Great Bustard Group).
The process was much easier now and the birds were far healthier and 'wilder'. There was no quarantine when arriving from Spain – within two days of hatching, the bustards were on the grasslands of Salisbury Plain. "They were now feather perfect. It was a real turning point. If we'd stayed in Russia, we wouldn't have reached this point," David says.
Now, in 2020, the population is made up of older Russian birds, but mainly Spanish and UK-born individuals. "We're happy we made mistakes early on so we could learn from them." This turnaround in fortunes propelled the Wiltshire population to its current peak of more than 100 birds, with summer 2020 the best breeding season on record, following years of steady rises in nesting females.
Said best breeding season involved no fewer than 22 nests being located, though some of them involved second attempts. Six of these were in the 8-ha open-fenced meadow behind where I was sitting for this interview – I was lucky enough to observe two females with their young here. Eight others were on private land in wheat and barley crops. Unusually – and due to poor spring crops this year, David believes – the other eight nests were in silage fields, as the bustards adapted to find sites away from their favoured areas.
A female with a chick in tow wanders around a fenced-off meadow close to the Great Bustard Project headquarters (Josh Jones).
This strict association with farmland – and not, as commonly assumed, grassland – means co-operation with farmers is key. Thankfully, David and his team have a good relationship with those in the area. But, as he learnt in Russia, if you cut anything more than half of the field a female bustard is sitting in, she will desert the nest. So it's important to find the nests while the female is sitting and inform the farmers, though this is easier said than done and sadly this year one female was killed by a mower.
If the farmers need to harvest a field a bustard is nesting in, the project will take the eggs and give them to project partner Cotswold Wildlife Park, which has also helped with the White Stork reintroduction. There, in the incubation facilities, the eggs are monitored until hatching, when they return to Wiltshire. Here, David and his team will hand rear the birds – as they did with previous Russian and Spanish imports – complete with a dehumanisation outfit.
This year, 17 eggs were rescued from soon-to-be harvested fields, with 13 hatching. This isn't ideal for David, as he explained: "We place the highest value on wild nests and don't really want to interfere." It is impossible to know if the females with nests on private land were successful, but at least five well-developed young have been seen across the plain.
Arable crops with patches of bare earth are favoured by female Great Bustards as places to lay eggs (Great Bustard Group).
In their first winters, many birds will disperse – something that happens in Iberia, too. This is usually south and west – to Gloucestershire, Hampshire and Dorset, but sometimes further afield. Amazingly, one of the early Russian birds reached Toulouse in southern France; others have been seen in Brittany and the Channel Islands. Red-ringed '76' spent November and December 2019 on the Isle of Wight, before returning to Wiltshire in summer 2020.
From their second winter, birds don't move, David says. The reasons for this dispersal are unclear, but David offered an idea: "It's a bit anecdotal, but there seems to be a relationship between the size of female droves in the winter and the number of new juveniles. Smaller droves are willing to absorb new birds, but if there are lots of juveniles then some of them tend to disperse."
Apparently, the German reintroduction scheme has found the same. "The handful that have turned up in the UK since the 1970s are almost certainly from German hand-reared reintroduction programmes," David says, perhaps to the angst of anyone reading this with the famous East Anglia birds of 1987 on their list …
A lot has been achieved by the Great Bustard Project since its inception almost two decades ago. What I was most impressed by, though, was how it has all happened with next to no support from any conservation or government bodies. The project is a membership organisation with around 3,000 members, who pay a subscription fee. "It's a bit old fashioned, but we sometimes hold jumble sales to raise money," David explains. Money is virtually non-existent, mainly because the project has been unceremoniously shunned by Natural England for years.
The main sticking point, Natural England has told David, is that Great Bustard "isn't a native species". The fact White Stork – with one ropey breeding record from 1416 – is treated as native confuses and irks David.
"My frustration is because it means any habitat management is paid for by me; Great Bustard is not included on any agri-environment schemes, even though farmers want to get involved. We got a licence from Natural England in 2004, did everything with their consent and blessing but they won't do anything to help. During the last 10 years we have tried again and again to make contact – but they aren't interested. We haven't even been able to get a reply, other than an insulting and ignorant one. It upsets me so much. I can't understand the mindset."
Great Bustard has a long association with Wiltshire as a wild bird and features on the county's coat of arms.
His frustration that July morning was clear. Things, perhaps, have since taken a turn for the better, though. When I met him, David mentioned that he'd been told a letter from Matthew Heydon – DEFRA's Principal Specialist for Species Protection – was incoming. And by the time I wrote this, it had arrived, along with correspondence from Tony Juniper, the new Chairman of Natural England. Positively, they said there was no reason why Great Bustard couldn't be included in agri-environment schemes – but there were none available for the species.
Bizarrely, they also suggested it was the British Ornithologists' Union (BOU) who decided that Great Bustard wasn't native while White Stork was, and that the project needed to take the issue up with that organisation. Buck passing or a poor excuse for ignoring the project's pleas for help over the last few years, perhaps …
Coronavirus has meant trying to create bespoke agri-environment schemes is at a standstill and, again, it seems the project is at a dead end regarding outside help. At the moment, they think they need to influence the BOU and are preparing a paper which they believe will support their claim that Great Bustard is native. Going on what David told me, there is quite a lot of sound evidence behind this belief – probably more than supports the idea of White Stork being native to England.
"Great Bustards are fully documented as regular breeders across a good part of England, from as far north as Yorkshire, until the 1800s at least. For example, eggs were taken from a farm near Scarborough. The last documented breeding record is quoted as 1832, when a nest was raided in Norfolk, though it probably occurred much later. In 1873, one was shot Wiltshire," David stridently explains.
White Stork may occur much more regularly as a wild visitor to Britain, but this is chiefly because it is a long-distance migrant. On the BOU's British list, both species are placed in category AE. There seems little doubt the bustard fits in south Wiltshire, which is proper 'big sky country', complete with rolling fields and grasslands, and home to decent numbers of species such as Corn Bunting, Whinchat and Yellow Wagtail, as well as an assortment of raptors and rare breeders like Eurasian Stone-curlew and Common Quail.
This released female spent the November and December 2019 on the Isle of Wight and in Sussex, before returning to Wiltshire the following summer (Matt Eade).
Despite this lack of support, and the myriad hiccups experienced on the way, the project has ploughed on and is now enjoying success. I ask the killer question – whether David believes the Wiltshire population is self-sustaining.
"Yes, but I would place a caveat that says that the bulk of the population is both Spanish and British born. At least 15 new birds from 2020 are UK, wild bred. We also think this year there was a chick born from a wild-bred female, but she was unmarked and we can't prove it, as rings have been known to fall off before. On statistics we have at the moment and the model we use, the population has exceeded the tipping point of being self-sustaining. But the proof will be when there is a sufficient number of birds over eight years old."
Female Great Bustards are most productive in terms of raising young when they are between eight and 16, so there are perhaps a few years to go until the project can be considered truly self-sustaining. But all the signs, at the moment, are good. David continued: "It's very encouraging for us, the targets for self-sustainment are being hit and, even if we did nothing else, each year the females would get older and productivity should rise, so the projection is good."
David doesn't want to do nothing, though, and has long-term plans. I ask if he envisages a day when he isn't involved with the project. "I'm not sure that point will come," he replies, before explaining that there is ever-increasing interest from landowners in releasing bustards, from areas nearby such as Cranbourne Chase and Marlborough Downs to Norfolk and Yorkshire. It's possible, David says, but the limit is stock – they can't keep taking birds from Spain and captive breeding is hard. He wants to have a population of 'many hundreds' in south Wiltshire first.
Great Bustard is one of the world’s heaviest flying animals and adult males can weigh up to 18 kg (Great Bustard Group).
Within a carefully managed environment, the Wiltshire Great Bustards are self-sustaining. But with so many factors to consider – not least the longevity of these birds – it's probably a little while before they can be considered a fully wild British bird. The only way seems to be up for the Great Bustard Project, though.
Does it really matter if the population isn't yet officially viable as a tick on a list? The goals of the project transcend far beyond such trivial things. Great Bustard is an internationally threatened bird, symbolic of big, wild spaces that are fast disappearing. So, in my mind at least, any effort to give them a hand should be met with fervent support – far more than has been offered to David and his team during the last two decades.
If you don't believe me, why not take a look yourself? The Great Bustard Project welcomes visitors. The worst you will receive is a warm welcome and, hopefully, views of one of the most spectacular birds on earth.
- This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue of Birdwatch magazine.