Bustards brought back to Britain

In the next few weeks, 40 great bustard chicks will be taken from their nests near the Volga river in Russia, driven to Moscow, put on a night flight to Heathrow, rushed through Customs and, while still dark, taken to a pen on land rented from the army on Salisbury plain.

In the next few weeks, 40 great bustard chicks will be taken from their nests near the Volga river in Russia, driven to Moscow, put on a night flight to Heathrow, rushed through Customs and, while still dark, taken to a pen on land rented from the army on Salisbury plain.

The two-week-old birds will wake to a motherless world of unlimited food, high wire fences and nearby artillery practice. Most confusing of all, however, the only people they will be allowed to see for many months will be dressed in Ku Klux Klan-type "dehumanisation" suits, without visible arms or legs, who will train them to survive in the the wild by poking at them stuffed foxes on the end of sticks.

The reintroduction to Britain of the world's heaviest flying bird after 160 years is the most ambitious and eccentric bird conservation exercise in years. Led by David Waters, a former Wiltshire police officer, the £300,000 project is backed by the army, the government, the EU and hundreds of locals.

If, as expected, three in four of the chicks die, 40 more will be brought from endangered nests in Russia every year. If in 10 years there are 100 great bustards in Britain, the scheme will be deemed a success.

If the birds do take to Salisbury plain, and perhaps later the Marlborough downs and elsewhere, it will be a triumph for Mr Waters, who has been fascinated by them since as a teenager in the 70s he saw a drove of tame bustards being unsuccessfully encouraged to breed on Porton down in Wiltshire

The birds are by any standards extraordinary - a cross between a turkey and an eagle with whiskers, weighing up to 22kg (50lb) and practically needing a runway to take off. Since setting up the Great Bustard Group in 1998, Mr Waters has resigned from the police and spent £40,000 of his own money on their reintroduction.

"This is a translocation project. There will be no attempt to hold them or to tame them. We want them in the wild quickly," said Dr Patrick Osborne, a senior lecturer in environmental management at the University of Stirling, who has researched great bustards in Europe for 20 years and is advising the project.

The key to their survival in Britain, he says, is training them to live in the wild.

"We don't want the birds to see people, but we do want them to see foxes. They can 'imprint' on the first thing they see, so they will be fed with a long glove-puppet which looks like a mother bird."

Volunteers, who will keep a 24-hour vigil at the site, will then train the birds to recoil from foxes and other predators by introducing them to stuffed animals. "We probably won't see wild-reared ones for a while. It could be a minimum of five years before the first eggs are hatched in the wild," Mr Waters said.

The great bustard was once widespread across England. But the bird declined in numbers with the intensification of farming and was hunted to extinction as a breeding bird by 1832.

Bird's eye view

· The great bustard is the largest land bird in Europe and the heaviest flying bird in the world. The male weighs around 20kg, stands up to 105cm tall and has a wingspan of 2.4 metres

· The birds move around in flocks, known as droves, of varying size and feed primarily on seeds, berries and insects

· With only three toes, all pointing forward, and in the absence of a hind toe, the bird is unable to perch

· There are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 remaining and the species is recognised as globally threatened, due mainly to loss of habitat caused by modern agricultural methods

· It is found mainly in eastern Europe, Spain and Portugal

· The great bustard is the county bird of Wiltshire and features on the county coat of arms, despite being hunted to extinction there in the 19th century

· When it was relatively common, it was hunted for its meat, which would be stuck with cloves and roasted or baked. It was enjoyed by the neanderthals and the ancient Greeks and became a staple part of medieval Christmas dinners


John Vidal, environment editor

The GuardianTramp

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