The Return of the Great Bustard (Otis tarda)

on Friday, 25 September 2015.

As a self–taught, amateur bird watcher, I am always eager to spot unusual birds, especially if they are in Wiltshire. I am yet to book a date with the Great Bustard Group (a dedicated band of Bustard enthusiasts), who provide an escorted trip out on Salisbury Plain for a reasonable fee. If you want to just go out and spot yourself a Great Bustard, it is very much discouraged. These birds are very private and shy- very easily alarmed. It is best to be guided by the experts so as not to upset the slowly expanding Wiltshire population.

Wiltshire has always been quite partial to the Great Bustard. Not only was it a palatable bird but also popular, especially in Georgian times, as a trophy to hang on ones wall. Even in the early 19th century, when numbers were considerably dwindling, naturalists were still bagging themselves a specimen; this was to prove to others of their sighting to avoid being scoffed at in scientific circles.

Until recently, it was understood that the Great Bustard had been native to Britain for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence has been found in various parts of the country and previous examinations of skeletal remains have been passed off as those of the Great Bustard. Now, with the advance of science and DNA screening, the specimens which have been re examined have been found to be those of the Common Crane (Grus grus). It is now believed that the first migrants came from the Iberian Peninsula during the late medieval period and not before the 16th century. This conclusion has been deduced from the lack of historical documentation ie. household accounts, feast lists and market prices. Also, there is no name for the Great Bustard in Saxon.

In 1534, a law was passed by King Henry VIII to protect the eggs of the Great Bustard. A fine of 20 pence was given per stolen egg and for worst crimes against the conservation of the bird; time in gaol was sometimes given.

The first known publication to mention the Bustard was by Dr Thomas Moffett, a Wilton Physician (1555-1604). In an early recipe book (‘The English Housewife’ by Gervais Markham 1615), he described the Bustard as being ‘best in winter’ and a good table bird. It was such prized meat it was provided for a great feast for the Judges of the Western Circuit at the Salisbury Assize in June 1600.

An Act of Parliament was passed in 1775 to give the Great Bustard a closed hunting season from 1st March to the 1st December in order to protect it during the breeding season. This was probably too late to save the bird as it continued to be hunted for food and as a trophy; the Great Bustard was an easy target due to its slow speed and awkwardness on land. It was not only shot but also taken by sheepdogs. The introduction of Enclosures and the increase in ploughing really didn’t help the dwindling few.

It is believed that the Great Bustard was extinct on its stronghold, Salisbury Plain, by the 1820s. A few sporadic sightings and subsequent shootings followed in North Wiltshire including, apparently, one near Chippenham in the 1890s. Then the bird was no more.

Extract from the Cobb family papers Newton Tony in June 1744. These household accounts show that a bustard was bought for 10 shillings and 6 pence. Note that the bird was bought in June before the closed hunting season was introduced.

The first attempt at a re-introduction programme of this great bird was during the 1970s and ‘80s. The former conservation group, the Great Bustard Trust, used captive born Portuguese and Hungarian birds on a breeding programme at Porton Down. They also used one Bustard from the Shetland Islands. Unfortunately, all the chicks died.

In 1998, the Great Bustard Group was formed. Based again on Salisbury Plain, this time the eggs were sourced instead of live, imported birds. These eggs were brought from Saratov in Russia, but for numerous reasons this arrangement was unsuccessful. Importing such a precious cargo from such a vast distance was difficult, not forgetting bureaucracy and red tape. The main problem, however, was that as the Bustards matured, they felt the urge to migrate due to their ancestry, which was towards the south/southwest from England. This was disastrous and birds were lost at sea.

Many birds may have been lost due to their inability to adapt to their location, but a breakthrough in research was made in 2013. Dr Paul O’Donoghue, from the University of Chester discovered that DNA from one of the last stuffed specimens of the English Great Bustard was much more closely related to the species found in Spain. This was fantastic news for the reintroduction programme as Spain holds two thirds of the World population of the Great Bustard. The current population is thought to be around 30,000.

In March 2015, 3 Great Bustards were spotted in Dorset and 12 out of the 33 birds released last year have been seen on Salisbury Plain. In June 2015 four nests were discovered with healthy chicks and at least 30 more young birds will be released this year. This years’ breeding of the bird seems to have been the most successful yet. The Great Bustard Group is attempting to raise funds to track the birds over the winter as this is the most vulnerable period for the youngsters.

It is hoped that the British population of this stunning bird will continue to expand with the help of its many admirers and our gratitude must be given to the devoted Great Bustard Group. I look forward to booking my spot on one of their trips onto the Plain. To follow the groups’ progress check out their website-

Anna Ervine, Local Studies Assistant

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