One of UK's rarest birds booms again after nearing extinction

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The Independent Online

You hear it first, and a weird sound it makes: a deep resonating grunt that floats over the reedbeds in the early dawn like the boom of a foghorn – something like Ooooomph , or perhaps Unnnnngh .

You hear it first, and a weird sound it makes: a deep resonating grunt that floats over the reedbeds in the early dawn like the boom of a foghorn – something like Ooooomph, or perhaps Unnnnngh.

It's only later that you see the bird, if you're lucky. Mostly it stays deep within the reeds but occasionally it will come to the edge, though even then it is invisible until it moves, so perfect is the camouflage.

The bittern is one of the rarest creatures in Britain, and today the European Union is making £2.4m in funding available for a project that hopes to double the numbers of bitterns in the UK within 10 years.

This mysterious brown relative of the heron was driven to extinction here in the mid 19th century, not least because its fatty flesh was regarded as a delicacy (in East Anglia it was known as the butterbump) and it was hunted in organised shoots. It returned to breed in 1911 and has clung on ever since in two strongholds – East Anglia and a small corner of Lancashire – but never in large numbers.

The population peaked in the 1950s with perhaps 80 pairs, but then it steadily declined until by 1997 the whole country contained only 11 "booming" males. (The male's strange call, which is uttered to proclaim its territory and attract females, can be heard two miles away under the right conditions. It is the only reliable way of counting the birds.)

The bittern was on the edge of extinction but EU emergency funding, from the Life nature programme, enabled it to be pulled back from the brink. Research by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds showed that it was disappearing because of the continuing loss of its highly specialised habitat – wet beds of the common reed, Phragmites australis, with clear water. (Bitterns live on fish but prefer to do their fishing inside the reeds.)

An initial EU grant enabled the reedbeds of all the known bittern sites to be extended and improved over four years – so successfully that this spring nearly 40 male birds have been heard booming, the highest number since 1983. And now a coalition of eight conservation organisations is launching a £4m project, 60 per cent funded by another Life grant, to build on this and bring the bittern back in many other places. It will be launched today at Minsmere on the Suffolk coast, which is the best place to hear and see bitterns in the country. The project intends to secure a strategic network of sites for the bird across England, from Cornwall to Yorkshire.

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