Great bustard reintroduction project gets EU funding boost

Scheme to reintroduce the world's heaviest flying bird to the UK has received £1.8m from the European Union

Efforts to reintroduce the world's heaviest flying bird to the UK have received a £1.8m boost from the European Union.

The project to bring the great bustard back to Salisbury Plain has been bringing chicks from Russia to the UK for release since 2004.

The attempt to reintroduce the globally scarce bird, which became extinct in the UK by 1832, had its first major breakthrough in 2009 when the population produced the first chicks to hatch in the wild in this country for 177 years.

But the project has had a hand-to-mouth existence.

The funding from the EU Life+ initiative will cover 75% of the scheme's costs, including monitoring the bustards with GPS satellite transmitters.

The University of Bath, which is part of the partnership to reintroduce the bird, said 16 bustards had been fitted with satellite transmitters to track where they go to feed and roost.

The information will be used to monitor those areas for food availability and predators, and create feeding patches which cultivate the right mix of plants and seeds to provide food and attract the type of insects the birds eat.

The reintroduction project is the brainchild of David Waters, who said: "... Now we have a chance to give this project real wings.

"The funding will provide a properly resourced project, with four new posts, new monitoring equipment and even the possibility of a second release site."

But he added the €2.2m (£1.8m) grant would not end the funding worries for the scheme, as around a quarter of costs would still need to be found by the project partners.

Bustards, whose males can stand over a metre tall (40in) and with a wingspan of up to 2.4m (7.75ft), disappeared from the UK after being hunted to extinction.

They have also vanished from France, Poland, Germany, Sweden and Holland.

The reintroduced birds come from Russia, where eggs are rescued from destruction by farming, and are reared by keepers operating glove puppets, simulating the act of being fed by their mothers, before being flown to the UK at about six weeks old.

Last year, at least four chicks were known to have hatched, while the previous year saw the first two wild-born chicks reared to fledging.

A small UK population of around 18 birds has been built up under the scheme, which is now being run by a partnership of the Great Bustard Group, government conservation agency Natural England, the RSPB and Bath University.

PhD student John Burnside said: "We're particularly interested in how the birds will behave in their new habitat.

"Great bustards learn a lot of their behaviour from each other and so the newly introduced chicks have to learn quickly how to feed, survive and avoid predators without the help of their mother.

"As the population becomes established, their survival chances should hopefully get better - this project will be looking into ways of improving release methods and the survival of the birds in the long term."

Press Association

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