The LIFE+ project “Reintroducing the Great Bustard (Otis tarda) to Southern England” is a partnership between the RSPB, Great Bustard Group, University of Bath and Natural England. It will run for five years from September 2010 until August 2015, with a grant from the EU of €2.2 million providing the resources to enable a wide range of new work. The great bustard is classed as globally threatened, and the fundamental aim of the project is to contribute to the reversal of the ongoing decline in the conservation status of the great bustard at EU level.
We will concentrate on several key topics. There will be a much greater emphasis on monitoring, to help us answer many questions regarding the basic ecology and behaviour of the birds, their habitat preferences and causes of mortality. A second priority will be to improve habitat for bustards, by providing advice in key areas and seeking to create bustard management areas for breeding. We will also be looking at the possibility of a second release site, to increase the ability of bustards to expand their range. Ultimately, we will take an important step towards the establishment of a self-sustaining population of great bustards in the UK.
The great bustard Otis tarda is a globally threatened species that is listed on Annex I of the EC Birds Directive and is also identified as a priority for LIFE+ funding. It was formerly widely distributed across large parts of lowland Europe, but started to decline in the 18th century and is now absent from much of its original range. It became extinct from the UK in 1832, and from numerous other European nations over the rest of the 19th and the 20th centuries. It is still declining in most of the countries where it survives.
In 2004, permission was granted by the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for a 10-year trial reintroduction programme on and around the Salisbury Plain SPA in central southern England. To date, this programme has succeeded in raising the population of great bustards on Salisbury Plain from zero to approximately 15. In addition, following several unsuccessful breeding attempts in the early years of the programme, the first great bustard chicks to hatch in the UK for more than 170 years appeared in June 2009.
The purpose of the proposed LIFE+ project will be to increase significantly the population of great bustards on Salisbury Plain by completing and extending the reintroduction programme described above, and to prepare and begin the implementation of measures to establish a self-sustaining population of great bustards in southern England over the longer term.
It is important to note that the project will definitely not be a simple continuation of the ongoing work, but will be a much broader and more ambitious piece of work involving a larger, more experienced and more influential delivery team. The award of a LIFE+ grant will allow the reintroduction work to be implemented on a properly funded basis, rather than on an extremely restricted budget as has been the case to date. As a result, it will enable us to carry out a range of essential activities that have hitherto been impossible. These will include detailed monitoring to improve understanding of the interaction between released bustards and their environment, and thus allow optimisation of reintroduction and management techniques; the development of a long-term strategy to guide future work on great bustards in the project area and elsewhere in the UK; and the formulation and promotion of agri-environment options to improve the suitability of the ‘wider countryside’ for great bustards. Taken together, these and additional activities will greatly increase the probability that we achieve our ultimate aim (or ‘overall goal’, to use logical framework terminology) of re-establishing the great bustard as an integral part of the UK avifauna.
The top-level objective (or ‘super-goal’) to which the project will contribute is to arrest and ultimately reverse the ongoing decline in the conservation status of the great bustard at the EU level. The project will contribute to this objective in three important ways. Firstly, it will be a crucial step towards the establishment of a sizeable, self-sustaining population of great bustards in the UK, a part of its former range that currently holds only a tiny number of birds but is capable of supporting many more. Secondly, it will do a great deal to help the great bustard to adapt to climate change, for reasons explained at the end of this summary. Thirdly, it will enable conservation practitioners throughout Europe to learn more about techniques for reintroducing and conserving great bustards, and will thus be highly valuable in informing the evolution of the conservation strategy for this species (and strategies for others) at the continental level.
The project will be consistent with the requirements of the EC Birds Directive, the Bern Convention, the Bonn Convention, the current European action plan for the great bustard (1996) and the first draft of the revised European action plan (2009). Natural England, the statutory agency with responsibility for nature conservation in England, will maintain a close overview of the status of the great bustard on Salisbury Plain, and will recommend updating of the SPA Data Form (and, if necessary, the SPA boundaries) once it is clear that the reintroduction has been successful.
The main means by which the project purpose will be achieved will be as follows.
- A release programme will be successfully implemented. This will involve the translocation of at least 20 juvenile great bustards from Russia each year, the completion of all necessary health checks and quarantine procedures, and the release of the bustards into an 8-ha enclosure. The enclosure is fenced to provide protection from predators, but is not roofed; therefore, the bustards can leave and enter it at will.
- The release area will be managed to maximise its value to great bustards year-round. It is a favoured locality for bustard activity, and needs to be managed in such a way that it provides both nest sites and a good supply of natural food at all times of year.
- More extensive areas of suitable habitat for great bustard will be secured across a wider area through the development and promotion of targeted options for inclusion within agri-environment schemes, and through input into strategic land use plans – for example, that used by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which owns the land within the Salisbury Plain SPA. The MoD has been consulted about this project and is supportive of it.
- Plans for additional release areas and ‘management areas’ within this wider landscape will be developed and implemented. ‘Management areas’ will be blocks of land that are important for lekking and/or breeding. They will be carefully managed but not fenced.
- All necessary steps will be taken to ensure that the bustards and their nests and eggs are protected from threats such as disturbance and egg collecting. These will include, for example, the establishment of voluntary wardening schemes as necessary and the education of visitors about the problems caused by disturbance.
- A rigorous monitoring programme will be carried out to improve knowledge of bustard distribution, ecology and behaviour and thus inform the implementation of project actions. Factors covered by this programme will include habitat use, breeding behaviour, mortality rates and causes, predators and food availability.
- A range of communication and dissemination actions will be undertaken to develop a high profile for the project both in local communities and in key target groups such as land managers and conservation practitioners, and to promote the project as a case study of best practice in species reintroduction.
- Links will be developed with projects targeting great bustards elsewhere in the EU to allow the multi-way exchange of experiences and lessons learned. The proposed project will be the only great bustard conservation initiative involving translocation, and will therefore be of great demonstration value. For example, it has the potential to inform future translocation of great bustards from Germany to Poland.
The reintroduction programme will conform with all relevant LIFE+ requirements. In particular, all necessary steps will be taken to ensure that the Russian population from which juvenile bustards will be obtained will not be harmed by the project. Throughout the project period, the Beneficiaries will support the in situ conservation of this population, as a separate but complementary initiative to the reintroduction work in the UK.
The main expected result is that the population of great bustards on Salisbury Plain will have risen from approximately 15 individuals to approximately 50 individuals by the end of the project. Importantly, we anticipate that this increase will be not have been due entirely to the continual introduction of new birds into the population; successful breeding and internal recruitment will be key success criteria for the project. Specific estimates of the likely rates of breeding and recruitment are currently being finalised; these need to balance annual adult mortality for a population to be stable.
A population of 50 individuals may not be large enough to be truly self-sustaining – although opinion on this varies. What is certain, however, is that a population of 50 birds with significant levels of internal recruitment will be a huge advance on the current population of 15 birds. In combination with the work that will be carried out during the project to secure high-quality habitat for great bustards in the wider countryside, this population will form an excellent basis for the development of a large and flourishing group of birds able to persist indefinitely without further external input.
Additional results related to the specific objectives outlined above will include the following.
- The release area will have been enhanced and will be providing a valuable ‘safe haven’ for bustards throughout the year.
- The area of habitat suitable for great bustards in the wider countryside will have increased significantly, and will continue to increase after the project because of measures taken during it such as the development of new agri-environment options.
- An estimated one additional release site and two ‘management areas’ will be in place.
- Bustard mortality and breeding failures due to disturbance, predation and other direct threats will have been minimised.
- Knowledge of bustard conservation needs will have been significantly enhanced, and this knowledge will assist direct conservation actions in the UK and elsewhere.
- Awareness and understanding of the project, and of great bustard conservation issues more generally, will be high both in local communities and in important audiences elsewhere (e.g. farmers, landowners and conservation practitioners).
- Strong links will have been forged with organisations working to conserve great bustards elsewhere, facilitating the mutually beneficial sharing of ideas and experiences.
Deliverable outputs created during the project will include: regular reports from the monitoring programme to inform project implementation; a national Species Action Plan; a layman’s report; a leaflet targeting local landowners; a promotional flyer targeting the general public; technical and financial reports to the Commission, as required; an after-LIFE report; and annual reports to Defra, the licencing authority.
April 2011 – We produced tractor cab stickers, with compliment slips to accompany them. These were sent to around 700 farming contacts in the potential range of great bustards, as a way of encouraging them to report sightings to us.
Tractor cab sticker
May 2011 – Our advice for managing farmland for great bustards was finalised, based on current knowledge. This document will be updated periodically throughout the project. Great bustards are not currently a target species within Higher Level Stewardship, meaning that options specifically for bustards are not yet available. There are still lots of things we can do to improve habitat for great bustards, as the information below shows.
Environmental Stewardship Great Bustard Management Guidelines
August 2011 – A new leaflet was published, designed to promote habitat management for great bustards to farmers and landowners. It was distributed to farmers throughout our target area. This will be followed up by demonstration days at the project site, and we will also be able to offer one-to-one visits to individual farmers.
Great bustard habitat advisory leaflet
Great bustard project area map
October 2011 – LIFE+ promotional leaflets were produced and distributed to tourist information centres around south west England. These will be printed annually, each time with an update on the progress of the project.
Promotional leaflet front
Promotional leaflet reverse
December 2011 – Two LIFE+ noticeboards were put up, one at the main project site and one at the Hawk Conservancy, with pictures and information about the project.