Suddenly one of them gave a high, plaintive call, a distant wail of "chee-oh" that must once have carried over the high, airy spaces of the old Salisbury Plain. "The bird's calling for its mother," said Dave Waters. They are not aware of it, but their foster mother is Waters himself.
The great bustard is one of Europe's most spectacular birds. A full-grown male is bigger than a swan, has a wingspan of seven feet and weighs up to 16 kilograms. Until the early part of the 19th century, the bustards lived in wild, treeless parts of England, especially in Wiltshire where their memory lives on in the county's coat-of-arms.
Why they died out is uncertain. Dave believes it was a combination of agricultural improvements and specimen collecting. Every museum wanted a stuffed bustard. And when their eggs were not being broken by hoes and seed drills, they were taken for breakfast. The last bird was shot around 1840.
Fortunately, the bustard's natural habitat on Salisbury Plain has not changed a great deal. It still has the combination of unfenced, insect-rich grassland and weedy arable fields the bustard needs. Past attempts to breed bustards for reintroduction proved failures, partly, Dave believes, because the birds came from Portugal and Spain where the birds are now known to be genetically different from the extinct British race. Our kind of bustard lives on in parts of eastern Europe and Russia. One stronghold of the great bustard is on the plains of Seratov, near the river Volga.
Although the bird thrives there, many of its eggs are lost to machinery or to predators. Hence, by removing the surplus of eggs that would not normally survive and hatching them in an incubator, chicks could be reared for a reintroduction attempt without harming the donor population.
The paperwork took five years. But by summer 2004, the first 28 bustard chicks were ready for their arduous journey by air and land to the waiting quarantine pen on the Plain.
One of the reasons for the failure of earlier attempts is that the birds became habituated to humans. To prevent this happening again, all contact between birds and people has been restricted to Waters and two helpers who wear baggy, helmeted "dehumanisation suits". The chicks learn to ignore these costumes and do not lose their natural fear of humans. Dave also fed the birds using a special glove-puppet resembling a mother bustard.
Once the birds could forage for themselves, Dave took on another parental role as "predator awareness teacher". "Some of their responses are instinctive," said Dave. "They are brilliant at spotting predatory birds. They recognised a harrier high up overhead long before I did." They are less adept at recognising foxes. Full-grown adult bustards are too big for foxes, but the young are frequent victims. Dave's idea was to teach them to fear foxes by association. Exposure to a German shepherd dog was accompanied by being splashed with water from a bucket. The experience, it was hoped, was unpleasant enough to imprint on their minds that foxes and bustards do not mix.
Acting as foster-mother to a flock of Russian bustards seems an unlikely calling for an ex-policeman. Dave Waters looks more like a soldier than an ornithologist. But his 12 years as a rural copper in the Wiltshire Constabulary honed his people skills. He uses refreshingly down-to-earth language but his love of birds, and bustards in particular, is obvious. Since retiring from the force two years ago to dedicate all his time to the Great Bustard Project, he has become not only a surrogate bustard mother but a project manager, diplomat, promoter and zoologist. He has read everything in print about great bustards. And he has poured his life savings into the project.
Reintroducing one of the world's most glamorous birds to Britain might sound like a conservationist's dream job. But it is no task for a sentimentalist. "It's not Beatrix Potter out there," said Dave. Though he and his helpers did everything possible to ensure success, they expected many, if not most, birds, to die within their first year.
In the wild, four out of five bustards fail to survive their first winter. As it turned out, it was about the same on Salisbury Plain. Out of 28 birds imported from Seratov last year, four died in quarantine, several were caught by foxes, while others died of injuries after crashing into the fence of their pen.
Another problem was the radio harness worn by all the birds so that their movements could be tracked. They were designed to be firm yet flexible, but they caused sprains and injuries and contributed to the casualty rate. Only four of the 2004 batch now walk the Plain (another four injured birds survive behind the wire).
Even so, Dave claims that the project is on course for success. The chances of the surviving birds reaching maturity in two or three years are quite good. There are two kinds of bustards, says Dave, "the numpties and the survivors". The survivors should be the toughest and canniest of the batch, the ones best able to cope with life on the Plain.
Meanwhile the fence has been covered in green material to make it more visible to the birds. And the old harness has been replaced with a different design. The survival rate should, it is hoped, improve. But even if all goes well, it will take five or six years before the first egg from a free-ranging great bustard is laid. It will be longer still before a sustainable breeding colony is established.
It will be worth waiting for. We are growing used to avian marvels: red kites floating above the suburbs, peregrines hawking pigeons in London. But the bustard comes from a more distant past and symbolises a deeper process of healing. If it does return to the Plain, it will be thanks largely to the dedication of an ex-copper turned green visionary with an unabated passion for bustards.
A bustard's life
The great bustard is one of the world's heaviest flying birds, outweighing a swan. It needs a long run to take off, but its flight is steady and majestic. It is capable of crossing the English Channel or even the North Sea.
Though long gone from the county, the bustard still has strong cultural links with Wiltshire. It appears on the county arms and on the badge of the Wiltshire Army Cadet Force. There is a Bustard pub on Salisbury Plain, a deliciously malty Bustard beer sold by Stonehenge Ales, and a "bustard and mustard" local cheese.
Lacking a hind toe, bustards are unable to perch. They have no use for trees. They like wide, open plains where they can see a long way in all directions.
Great bustards are omnivores. They can eat practically any animal or insect that they are able to catch and swallow, up to the size of a rat or baby rabbit. They also eat seeds, berries and nutritious leaves. Favourites include millet, buckwheat and alfalfa. Captive birds are said to be very fond of cheese.
Bustards were traditionally eaten at the mayor's banquet in Salisbury, as the biggest available bird inside which smaller birds, ranging from a goose to a snipe, were stuffed like Russian dolls.
A diminishing number of British great bustards survive in museums and egg collections. At least one was destroyed recently because "it was looking a bit moth-eaten".
The release site lies on Army ranges and so prior appointment is needed. The release pen can be viewed from a hide, but binoculars or a telescope are advised. Contact Dave Waters on 07817 971 327 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.orgReuse content