So long, you old bustards

Extinction claims a great British bird, but there is hope for others, writes Mark Rowe
WILL other birds go the way of the Great Bustard, which last week died out in Britain? Almost certainly, wildlife experts say, but there is some good news: several species once locally extinct now flourish, as farmers and the law give greater support.

Intensive farming, the key reason for the demise of the Great Bustard, is enough to set the wings of other birds trembling. Modern agricultural methods, which utilise every possible tract of land, drastically reduced the large open plains on which the turkey-like bird thrived.

However, wildlife organisations such as the RSPB have begun a campaign to persuade farmers to modify their habits. This has been accompanied by strict enforcement of laws banning the persecution of birds. As a result, several species once persecuted to the point of extinction, including the red kite, osprey and white-tailed eagle, have recovered.

In fact, the number of species seen in the wild in Britain and Ireland actually rose to 551 last year. Among the newcomers are the American coot, the black-faced bunting, the cedar waxwing, and three warblers: bay- breasted, Hume's leaf and eastern Bonelli's.

"The difference with the birds of prey was that, although they were wiped out, their habitat was not destroyed," said RSPB spokesman Chris Harbard. "When they were reintroduced, it is no surprise they flourished. It is no coincidence that it was the birds of prey that were wiped out. They were frequently seen as pests, deliberately persecuted, and their eggs were often extremely valuable. When the eggs are taken it really sends a population into a downward spiral."

The spectacular red kite died out in the 1850s and was reintroduced in 1989, since when numbers have shot up: there are now 71 breeding pairs in Scotland and England, with many on the Welsh borders.

Similarly, the osprey died out in 1916 and was reintroduced in the 1950s: there are now 1,200 breeding pairs in Scotland and in RSPB-protected areas.

The avocet, the wader that is the symbol of the RSPB, also illustrates the ability of nature to fight back against man-made obstacles. It became locally extinct in the early 19th century when land was drained in East Anglia for agricultural purposes. The region was then flooded to obstruct a possible German invasion during the Second World War and the bird returned from continental Europe.

One of the keys to the recovery of many birds, and the future protection of others, is improved farming practices, Mr Harbard said. Grants are now available to subsidise farmers who preserve traditional nesting and feeding grounds, such as hedges and the edges of fields.

"We are campaigning very hard through the Common Agricultural Policy. We need to help farmers who will be disadvantaged financially if they help wildlife," said Mr Harbard. "It's a question of bio-diversity. If we don't find a way of taking the intensity out of agriculture, then you will get a countryside across Europe of farmed fields that are devoid of wildlife. There will just be a crop and nothing else."