Saturday, July 26, 2014

A new phase for the Great Bustard Reintroduction

A new phase for the Great Bustard Reintroduction

The Great Bustard Trial Reintroduction has entered a momentous new phase. Up until this year the project has used only birds sourced from Saratov in Russia, and the UK Government restricted this to birds hatched from eggs rescued from destroyed or abandoned nests.

The difficulties in rescuing the eggs, combined with the huge distances and logistical challenges of working in Russia meant that the number of birds the project was able to import into the UK was small – often as low as six birds a year.

The Great Bustard Group received a tremendous boost last year however when Dr. Paul O’Donoghue of the University of Chester undertook a genetic comparison of European Great Bustard populations. He discovered that, contrary to the previously held belief, the Great Bustards in Spain form the closest living population of Great Bustards to the original UK population before its extinction.

The Great Bustard Group is very grateful to the museums and private collections that allowed genetic material to be removed from their specimens. Spain holds around two thirds of the world’s Great Bustard population with over 30, 000 birds, and that number is increasing.

Working with the invaluable support of local land owners and government officials in Spain, the Great Bustard Group undertook the collection of Great Bustard eggs from the Castilla la Mancha region. Having been granted the appropriate licences from the regional and national governments, a team of four GBG staff with two specially trained dogs and two staff from RSPB collected 56 Great Bustard eggs.

The eggs were exported in partnership with Madrid Zoo and transported by ferry to the UK to specialist bird park, Birdworld in Farnham, Surrey, home to the only public captive Great Bustard enclosure in Britain. Here park curator Duncan Bolton and a team of incubation experts undertook the incubation and hatching of the eggs with excellent results, achieving a hatch rate of over 82% of the viable eggs.  

The young chicks were then taken from Birdworld to the GBG Project Site in Wiltshire and reared by Great Bustard Group and RSPB staff. The young chicks need to be bill fed with a puppet and exercised as they grow. The rearing team wear dehumanisation suits to stop the chicks becoming imprinted on their human foster parents.

The project is now entering the release phase with a ‘soft release’ technique being used that gently allows the birds to find their freedom in stages. The first birds are now at the release sites. A total of 33 Great Bustards will be released this year at two secret sites in Wiltshire.

The use of Spanish birds promises to be a major step forward for the project. The previously released Russian birds have demonstrated a tendency to disperse in a South Westerly direction, often to their detriment. Studies in Russia by a German/Russian team, and by the GBG and its project partners in Russia - the Severtsov Institute of Ecology - have shown that some birds head South West to escape the worst of the Russian winter, but indicate that others do stay. It was thought that the mild UK winter would encourage the released birds to stay, but many of them dispersed, some even reaching French shores. Although many have successfully completed a return journey from France others are thought to have perished.

The Spanish Great Bustard population is the largest in the world. It is currently increasing and is largely sedentary.  

The cost of collecting the eggs and importing them to the UK was covered by the Rural Trust, whose support for the Great Bustard Group goes back to the beginning of the project when the first UK licences were being applied for.

The Great Bustard Trial Reintroduction was started in 2004 by the Great Bustard Group.
Since 2010 the Reintroduction Trial has been assisted by an EU LIFE+ grant which is coordinated by the RSPB. The LIFE+ programme covers up to 75% of eligible expenditure.

David Waters
Director Great Bustard Group

Tel: 07974 785426

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