Posted on Friday, May 13th, 2011
In April five members of the Great Bustard Project team had the opportunity to visit Austria, where another Great Bustard LIFE+ Project is running simulataneously with ours. After a 20 hour drive across France, Belgium, Germany and Austria, we went straight out into the field, and spent the whole of the next three and a half days observing bustards and exploring their habitat.
The Central European population of Great Bustards inhabits the border region between three countries. Bustards may spend the morning in Hungary, the afternoon in Slovakia and the night in Austria. The regional population had been on a steep downward trend, from 3500 in 1900 to 129 in 1996, but has since been steadily growing, thanks to a concerted conservation effort. By 2010, numbers had risen to over 400.
Austrian bustard habitat
We found the landscape striking – long thin fields, perhaps 20m wide but several hundred metres long, with no fences or hedges between them, and just the occasional shelter belt breaking up the flat, open landscape. This mosaic of strips of different crops was probably the reason bustards survived here, before work began to protect them.
We were hosted by Rainer Raab, the head of the Austrian Great Bustard Project, who has been responsible for much of the population increase. The main focus of his LIFE+ project, which immediately follows a successful LIFE project, is the burying of medium voltage power lines and the marking of high voltage power lines. Around half of known bustard mortalities in Austria in the last ten years have been caused by power lines, and the reluctance of bustards to fly across power lines has restricted their use of suitable habitat.
Power line scheduled for removal
We were shown marked lines, fields which used to be crossed by lines, and lines due to be removed. The improvement, not only for bustards but aesthetically, where power lines had been removed was clear. We even saw a pair of saker falcons, nesting on a platform Rainer had installed on a pylon.
This is important, expensive work, but crucially it is underpinned by the Austrian agri-environment scheme, ÖPUL. This has a set of Great Bustard conservation measures, designed for the purpose by Rainer. The measures are implemented within the Austrian Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for Great Bustards, and have acheieved excellent coverage: 5500ha at a cost of around £2 million per year.
Bustard fallow strip
We were able to visit all the Great Bustard SPAs in Austria, which meant we could see the measures in place on the ground. On our first evening we saw a variety of bustard fallows, sown with a seed mix which usually included lucerne, then mown annually but left in place for seven years. The combination of fallows at different stages of development scattered across the landscape helped to provide the mosaic of habitats required by bustards throughout the year. A second vital measure, although not so visible, concerned the protection of nest sites. Great Bustards in Austria favour winter wheat for nesting, and some wheat fields within the scheme are left without intervention from the farmer between mid-April and harvest. This gives nesting female bustards a long period without disturbance, reducing the chance of desertion.
Perfect bustard view
The results in bird numbers speak for themselves. We saw bustards every day, including a total of 119 in one place. The sight of a lek of 40 or 50 male bustards, strutting around with occasional fights breaking out, was spectacular. We saw several injured males, with bloodied faces. The females were not yet nesting, so they could also be seen in flocks around the leks. In one spot we could look down from a low ridge onto a flat area with a tight flock of 50 bustards – perfect for showing people birds, as we were doing that day with a group of farmers.
Many kinds of wildlife appeared to benefit from the bustard conservation areas. It was not possible to stop without seeing several marsh harriers, and we saw far more hares than could be found anywhere in the UK. We were also shown imperial eagles, which have been drawn to breed around the bustard sites by the habitat improvements. We heard positive stories all week, and learnt many things to take back and apply in Wiltshire.