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Bringing back the Bustard
The Great Bustard Group is a UK Registered Charity (number 1092515) that aims to establish a self-sustaining population of Great Bustards in the UK and create practical conservation measures for Great Bustards in Saratov, Russia. Great Bustards were formerly very much part of British wildlife before they were finally hunted out of existence in Britain by the 1840s. They have suffered similar dramatic declines in numbers across their range in the last 200 years and their global population is now estimated to be just 35,000 individuals. They are currently listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Globally Threatened Species.
They are a missing piece of UK wildlife heritage, artificially removed from the ecosystem due to over zealous trophy hunters. There still remains plenty of habitat suitable for Great Bustards in the UK, in particular the rolling downland and arable fields of Wessex. However, their population decline and fragmentation means recolonisation is unlikely to occur without a reintroduction programme.
Background to the Project
The UK is obliged under EU legislation (Habitats Directive 1992) to reintroduce species where it is considered feasible. The GBG was set up in 1998 to explore the possibility of reintroducing the Great Bustard to the UK and commissioned a feasibility study accordingly. The study took several years to compile and investigated all academic and practical research on Great Bustards and reintroductions in general. It ably demonstrated that the UK offers suitable conditions for Great Bustards and that the project would not be detrimental to the donor population or the existing UK ecosystem.
Based on the feasibility study, in 2003, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued a 10-year trial-licence to release Great Bustards in the UK. Releases have taken place annually since 2004.
Where the birds come from
Great Bustards for the UK reintroduction come from the population in the Russian Federation. This is the second largest population in the world, estimated at 8,000 individuals, and is considered stable by BirdLife International. This population is centred in the Trans-Volga region of southern Russia, principally the Oblast (administrative region) of Saratov.
Much of the natural steppe grassland of Saratov has been converted to huge cereal fields which now seem to provide more attractive conditions for Great Bustards to nest in even when areas of natural and semi-natural steppe are available. The extreme seasons experienced in Saratov results in the cultivation of fields coinciding with the Great Bustard nesting period. Despite their size, female Great Bustards are difficult to spot on a nest and reluctant to fly away from approaching tractors and consequently countless nests are inadvertently destroyed by the teams of tractors working the fields.
Since the 1980s The A. N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution (a branch of the Russian National Academy of Science) have been collecting eggs from doomed nests and artificially incubating them. Chicks from this scheme were originally used in various captive breeding projects across the former Soviet Union, which have so far proved unsuccessful. The Institute is now running a captive rear and release project instead, releasing Great Bustards back into the wild in Russia and also providing the chicks for the UK reintroduction.