Giant bird of the steppes in line for comeback

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The Independent Online

For thousands of years the great bustard was a common sight over Salisbury Plain, its four-foot wings casting a long shadow over the Wiltshire countryside.

The popularity of shooting, combined with the tradition that one great bustard be roasted each year for the feast of the Mayor of Salisbury, ensured that these ostrich-like birds have been absent from Britain since the 1820s.

Now a team of ornithologists has travelled to the Russian steppes in an attempt to transfer scores of young Otis tarda, which can grow to weigh 18kg, to their former territory in England.

David Waters, chairman of the Great Bustard Group, said: "This has been our goal for four years and I feel tremendously excited that we are about to complete a major stage towards fulfilling it.

"These magnificent birds, built like small ostriches, but with strong flight capability, were hunted to extinction in Britain by the early 19th century. With attitudes to wildlife so different now, the time is ripe for a comeback.

"They will add a thrilling feature to the English landscape and could be a conservation flagship species. If we can achieve the ideal habitat for them, many other downland creatures and plants will benefit also."

Since the final attempt to breed great bustards, in Suffolk in 1832, its presence in Britain has been limited to occasional sightings of fugitives from severe weather on the Continent. A project in 1970 to establish a colony on Ministry of Defence land at Porton Down, Wiltshire, came to nothing.

Mr Waters believes prospects are now much better, with the greater knowledge that has been accumulated of the birds' needs.

There are hurdles to clear first. One, which the group hopes will be a formality, will be obtaining a government licence to import up to 25 bustards annually for five years. Then it will be a matter of transporting the 7-14 day-old chicks to Britain, caring for them through quarantine and then taking them through the final rearing stage before they can be given the freedom of Salisbury Plain.

Mr Waters' team in Russia is based at Saratov, 200 miles north of Volgograd. Team members are investigating the logistical implications of the planned operation and making arrangements to begin importing the birds in the spring of 2003.

Mr Waters said: "It would be impossible to do it any sooner. This will be a complicated, delicate exercise and we need to spend as much time as possible on planning so that everything goes perfectly."

With Mr Waters in Saratov is Dr Patrick Osborne, a leading bustard authority from Stirling University in Scotland, along with a representative from the World Conservation Union and a specialist from the Zoological Society of London.

Reintroducing great bustards to Britain is considered internationally important because remaining wild populations in Russia, eastern Europe, Spain and Portugal are coming under increasing pressure from agricultural development.