The UK Great Bustard Population

The first release of Great Bustards took place in 2004. From 2004 to Bustards were 2012 birds were reared from eggs rescued from agricultural operations in Saratov Oblast in Russia.

The egg rescue programme was run by the GBG and their partners in Russia the A N Severtsov Institute of Ecology. The eggs were hatched in Russia and brought to the UK where the GBG had a special quarantine unit at its base on Salisbury Plain.

The post release survival rate was low, but a small breeding population was established.

In 2013 the GBG was able to obtain blood samples from all the european Great Bustard populations and also genetic material from the old indigenous English Great Bustard specimens. These came from museums and private collections across England and the GBG is most grateful to the owners who allowed us to take a small piece of skin.

The samples were then processed and the genetic profiles compared by genetic experts at the the University of Chester. The closest match to the original English birds was found to be the Spanish population. Armed with this information the GBG was able to approach the Spanish authorities with the request to collect Great Bustard eggs. The governments of Castilla La Mancha and of Castila Y Leon were tremendously supportive and granted the necessary licences for the GBG to collect.

The licences restricted the number collected in each area and set an early end date to ensure there was time enough to allow the females to lay a second clutch. The eggs were transported by road to the UK and were hatched at either Birdworld of more recently at our project partners in the Cotswold Wildlife Park. The survival rate increased dramatically – not in any way connected to the genetic make up or behaviour of the birds, but because by hatching them in the UK and being free from a restrictive quarantine meant the birds were simply reared to a much higher standard. There was no need to handle the chicks and they had no interruptions in their feather growth for example. The behaviour of the birds from either Russia or Spain was found to be exactly the same. Unfortunately a prematurely published “scientific” paper which could not wait for any Spanish birds to be release publicised the erroneous conclusion that the partial dispersal of hand reared birds was due to their Russian genetic make up. The Spanish birds behaved in exactly the same way.

Eggs were collected in Spain from 2014 to 2017 and again in 2019 when all the imports stopped. Since then the population has grown from close to 75 individuals to a figure close to 100 individuals. The population receives no supplementary feeding and is not contained or restrained in any way.

The first nest was located in 2007, and the first chicks in 2009. In 2022 we located over 20 nests, but there are undoubtedly more. Approximately one third of the UK population is wild bred and parent reared in Wiltshire; the rest being hand reared birds from either Russia or Spain.

The GBG has released birds at three different locations across south Wiltshire, some 10 to 15 miles apart and there is some interchange between the groups. all three groups are successfully breeding and the population is growing.