Landing back in Britain: the heaviest flying bird that has been missing since 1832

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The world's heaviest flying bird arrived back in Britain last night - after a 172-year absence.

The UK's population of great bustards became extinct in 1832 because of recreational shooting.

But a group of 30 three-week-old chicks, which have been bred wild in Russia's Saratov region, touched down at Heathrow Airport yesterday evening in the hope that the species can be reintroduced to its homeland.

The chicks were later taken to a specially built quarantine facility on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire to begin their "predator awareness training", ahead of their eventual release into the wild in four to six weeks' time. It is believed to be the first reintroduction to England of a species that had previously become extinct.

Over the next five years fresh batches of great bustards will be transported from Russia, currently home to the world's only sustainable population of the birds.

It is part of a long-term initiative by the conservationist David Waters, chairman of the Salisbury-based Great Bustard Group, and his fiancée Karen Ray, who have been working on the project since 1999.

Ms Ray said: "Great bustards have been the county bird of Wiltshire for centuries and it has always been David's passion to bring them back to the UK; and that dream has now become a reality."

She told how the incoming batch of birds, which live for up to 30 years and can, as adults, weigh more than 20kg, would be housed in a "soft-cell pen" - a 270 x 170 metre range with elastic perimeter fences to prevent injuries.

"We don't know what they will find dangerous - what's on their hard drive, so to speak - so we need to give them predator awareness training," she said. This will involve the use of a fox - the bustard's main enemy in the wild - a water cannon and an air blaster.

The tame fox used for the training will roam the enclosure and, should a bustard get too close to it, the bird will receive a warning blast of high-powered air or water.

This is the best known method of teaching the birds ahead of their release on Salisbury Plain sometime in September.

Ms Ray said: "A bustard's best defence mechanism is its speed across the ground. They can outpace a greyhound over the first few yards but, like swans, they take a while to get airborne."

She explained that the bustards "imprint" on humans, which means if they are around human beings for too long they start thinking they are also human. For that reason, the incoming Russian birds have been bred in isolation and have never seen a human being - something that the British end of the project will now endeavour to maintain.

The birds do not breed in captivity as the male and female live totally separate lives apart from the rare occasion when they come together to mate. The Russian-born imports currently believe they are wild and so will be left to breed of their own accord - a factor that leaves the project agonisingly beyond the scope of human influence.

And to add to the uncertainty, bustards are not the best parents, so infant mortality is commonplace.

But Mr Waters, who recently returned from a two-month stay in Russia, is optimistic nonetheless. He was careful not to tempt fate today when he spoke ahead of the birds' arrival at Heathrow this evening.

"I don't want to say anything too definite until the plane has actually landed," he said.

He went on: "I'm confident they will take root successfully on British soil. It's not an immediate thing and that is why our licence to import the birds is for 10 years. We do not expect to have our own sustainable population inside half of that time."

BACK TO ROOST

  • Bustards can weigh as much as 20kg and stand as high as an adult roe deer
  • Males usually have to be five years of age before they can breed. They gather in groups called "leks" to attract females
  • Males have a grey head, with a white moustache - females are much smaller with no moustache
  • Their diet is seasonal and largely opportunistic. They will eat insects such as grasshoppers in the summer and cereal seeds in the winter
  • The biggest natural enemy to the bird is the fox
  • Great bustards lived in England on open chalk downland, grassy heaths and agricultural land until the end of the 18th century. The species last nested in England in 1832
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