Where the birds come from
Until 2013, Great Bustards for the UK reintroduction came from the population in the Russian Federation. Russia has 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 used in a captive rear and release project, releasing Great Bustards back into the wild in Russia and also providing the chicks for the UK reintroduction for many years.
The end of an era
The termination of the sourcing of eggs from Saratovskaya in Russia in early 2013 marked the end of a chapter of the GBG’s history. In the winter of 2012/13 changes in the situation in Russia, the study of the superb birds of 2012 and the results of genetic work carried out by Dr O’Donoghue (see Otis 42 – The Right Birds - pg 10, and Genetic Analysis - pg 24) clearly identified Spanish birds as being more suitable for release in the UK. The early years in Russia were particularly stressful. In 2003 the Russian side was prepared to export birds to the UK, but the UK licensing authority, then DEFRA, had not yet concluded whether they would grant a licence to release the birds in the UK.
Having survived the stressful procedure of getting CITES permits the following years always presented new challenges. Some of these have been covered in previous issues of Otis. They were all overcome but the project lives on and it is because of these years in Russia that we are where we are today.
Why Spain for our Bustards.
The initial proposal made in 2001 by the GBG to DEFRA (then the licensing authority in the UK) for a reintroduction project was based on the use of birds derived from eggs rescued from destroyed nests in Saratov Oblast in the Russian Federation. Despite the unusual, even unique, suggestion of the project limiting itself to eggs which had no chance of hatching under natural conditions, the alleged impact on the donor population (which was held to be either level or increasing in population) became a difficult issue for the GBG, with the Birdlife network of organisations protesting strongly to prevent or terminate the project.
The licences issued by the local, regional and federal authorities in Russia all restricted the collection of eggs to those from destroyed or abandoned nests. This condition was also imposed by the UK authorities in the import licence and the licence to release the birds. Regular and frequent inspections by Russian officials were not judged to be thorough or competent enough by the UK licensing authorities and their advisors, and the whole project was threatened until independent witnesses and inspectors were able to report on the project. The GBG was obliged to fund two trips by staff from the Hungarian Birdlife Partner, MME, and these trips resulted in a report which confirmed the previous findings and statements from the GBG and the Russian state authorities. There is no other country in the world where a significant number of nests are destroyed by agriculture, so adherence to the conditions then set by the UK authorities made the use of any other populations impossible.
Within Europe the central and eastern Great Bustard populations are relatively small and subject to large state funded conservation projects. The UK project ( Trial Reintroduction) did receive much support from the German Bustard project and they did give the GBG two young hand reared males, but the UK licences prevented these birds from being released. They lived in the large release pen and acted as living decoys. However, national politics, funding restrictions and low numbers prevented the eastern and central Great Bustard range states from being able to offer birds in enough quantity to sustain a reintroduction project. Both Germany and Hungary operate an egg rescue programme and approaches were made to both countries.
The Iberian population was widely held to be genetically distinct from the rest of the worlds population. The idea being that having entered the Iberian Peninsular across the Straits of Gibraltar they were then unable to negotiate any crossing of the Pyrenees and became isolated. Despite many other bird species being able to negotiate the Pyrenees, including Little Bustards, this idea was circulated in the conservation and scientific press and was generally accepted. Further dampening on the use of Iberian birds came from an article published in the scientific press about the failure of a captive breeding project run by the Great Bustard Trust in Wiltshire during the 1970s and 80s. One of the explanations given in the article for the failure of the project to generate stock for repopulating the UK was that the majority of the birds used were Iberian and therefore unsuited to the the UK latitude. There was no evidence to support this suggestion, but as it appeared in print it was widely believed.
The operations of the GBG in Russia and its aim to raise awareness of the species in Russia, along with staff changes in the Russian partner organisation made it harder to export larger numbers of birds from Russia, with only 6 birds total for a years work on more than one occasion. Working with the University of Chester, the GBG sought to compare the different Great Bustard populations which may be suitable for release in the UK. The University of Chester undertook a comparison of the genetic analysis of Great Bustard samples from Russia, Germany and from historical specimens from the UK. The UK LIFE + project made a contribution to the laboratory material costs of this analysis. The results showed there was very little variation between the populations and that the closest population to the old UK Great Bustard population was from Spain.
The biggest breakthrough came in 2013 with the first release of Great Bustards reared from Spanish eggs. Prior to this the GBG had operated an egg rescue programme in Saratov in the Russian Federation, but a genetic study undertaken by Dr. Paul O'Donoghue at the University of Chester showed that the Spanish birds were closest to the original UK population.
Eggs, collected under licence in Castilla La Mancha, have been transported to the UK for the last two years with collection undertaken early in the season to encourage the females to lay a second clutch. The eggs are transported to Madrid Zoo where incubation is continued until they are moved to Birdworld, a specialist bird park in Farnham, Surrey. Here the team continue the incubation and oversee the hatching of the eggs.
The day old chicks are then taken to the GBG Project Site in Wiltshire and reared by the Great Bustard Group. The chicks need to be bill fed with a puppet and exercised as they grow so the rearing team wear dehumanisation suits to stop the chicks becoming attached to humans.
2014, the first using Spanish Great Bustards, saw 33 birds released and a spring census showed a survival rate of over 50% through the first winter. This percentage is much better than was achieved when using chicks imported from Russia, and is significantly better than the 22% which may be expected in a natural wild population.