Michael McCarthy: Why we should welcome back the bustards

We have fewer birds, butterflies, flowers, mammals and reptiles than the countries of Continental Europe
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The Independent Online

How did you react to the announcement that a great bustard had laid an egg on Salisbury Plain for the first time since 1832? Did you punch the air and shout, Yes!? Did you at once get a-texting to your friends, Amzng nws, gt bstd hs ld eg on Slsby Pln!!? Or, instead, did you emit that American grunt so expressive of mild curiosity and puzzlement combined: Huh?

Be honest, now. It was the last, wasn't it? Thoughts of Otis tarda, the superfowl from the Steppes which has been extinct in England these past two centuries and is now the subject of a reintroduction attempt, are not guaranteed to set the soul on fire. A special creature, no doubt about it - the heaviest bird in the world capable of flight. Yet there is a slight but undeniable hint of the comic about your bustard - it looks like a turkey on steroids - which means it is unlikely to capture the public imagination, or stand as an advert for the principle of reintroducing wildlife back into landscapes from which it has been lost.

On the other hand, consider this. You are travelling from London to Birmingham up the M40 motorway and come to the great chalk cutting through the slope of the Chilterns which shows Oxfordshire spread out below you, and off to the side of the road, where 20 years ago you might have seen a kestrel hovering, you get a glimpse of something much more dramatic. Wheeling in the sky is a truly majestic bird of prey, a really big flyer on white-patched angled wings with long fingered ends, a bird which just has to dip its shoulder to tumble 100 feet down and so take your breath away you nearly run off the road.

That's a red kite. And there's another. Watch the road! Twenty years ago these were among Britain's rarest birds, clinging on in a small population in mid-Wales as they had done for a century; now they are carving up the Chiltern sky from Goring-on-Thames to Luton and captivating the watchers on the ground. This is what a successful advert for species reintroductions does look like, and makes you think, we should be doing more of this.

Should we? Red kites, reintroduced into England and Scotland in the early 1990s, have been astonishingly successful: there are now more than 400 breeding pairs. But many attempts with other species have been costly failures. The great bustard is a case in point: flocks reintroduced earlier never produced an egg.

Attempts at reintroducing the lustrously beautiful large copper butterfly, notably at Woodwalton Fen in Cambridgeshire, have come to nothing. Perhaps the biggest failure of all has been the 28 years and several million pounds spent on trying to reintroduce a breeding population of salmon to the River Thames, although it should be said that this project faced truly formidable difficulties and may now finally be within sight of success.

Reintroduction is popular with politicians because it nearly always involves charismatic species and, if it succeeds, it makes it look as if the Government is doing something right. But there is a powerful ecological critique of this: it puts the focus in the wrong place. It is the present habitats, not new individual species, that we should be trying to conserve, because all species are only as plentiful as their habitats allow them to be.

However, in the British Isles there is also a powerful ecological argument in favour of species reintroduction: our fauna and flora are especially impoverished. This is partly a natural phenomenon: we are cut off at the end of the European peninsula and, once things die out here, they tend not to be replenished from other populations. We therefore have fewer of almost everything than the countries of continental Europe: birds, butterflies, flowers, mammals, reptiles. Just cross the channel, step ashore in Normandy, say, and you'll see the difference at once.

But there is an unnatural side to this as well: a book published earlier this year, Silent Fields by Roger Lovegrove, documented for the first time the two, scarcely believable, campaigns of mass slaughter that were waged against Britain's wildlife in the past. The first was by the people, under the Tudor vermin laws, lasting from about 1530 to about 1800; the second was by the gamekeepers of the great aristocratic sporting estates, which lasted from about 1800 to 1914. Between them they denuded our countryside of many of its native inhabitants. Do you think of the wild cat and the pine marten as rare Scottish animals? In Shakespeare's day they were in every English wood. Our countryside was once unimaginably richer in wildlife than it is now.

Putting these creatures back, therefore, is not only appropriate; it is life-giving. Several reintroductions of recent years have proved wonderful and inspiring successes. After much effort and expense, let it be said, we now once again have our sea eagles, our ospreys and our goshawks, which were slaughtered to extinction; we have several colonies of the large blue butterfly, which died out, and of the ladies' slipper orchid, which nearly did.

Let's not be churlish and, despite its bodybuilder appearance, let's extend the hand of friendship to the great bustard too, there with its egg on Salisbury Plain, and say with a sad sense of history but also a hope for the future: Welcome Back.