I’m delighted that the RSPB and Natural England have been able to announce that booming bitterns have passed the 100 mark - and reached 104 booming males in fact.
Given that in 1997 (incidentally, the year before I became the RSPB’s Conservation Director) there were only 11 booming males this is a remarkable and very welcome recovery. And let’s be fair, one of the biggest leaps forward in numbers was this year – the year I left the RSPB.
A whole host of people worked very hard to bring about this recovery and I don’t know, by any means, all their names. But people like Gillian Gilbert, Ken Smith and Glen Tyler spent a lot of time working out what bitterns needed and then an awful lot of site managers spent their time, and quite a lot of EU money, providing it.
For a while it seemed that the bitterns were being a bit ungrateful as recovery was slow and stuttering but in recent years things have really taken off, despite colder winters than usual, and bitterns are, indeed, booming.
I remember promising RSPB Council that there would be loads of bitterns in Somerset if only they’d approve the purchase of worked out peat workings on the Somerset Levels. I think I promised the first pair of breeding bitterns in 5 years, and it took a lot longer than that (but 5 years was well-chosen as RSPB Council members serve for five years and don’t all have very good memories anyway).
But Somerset is an important county for the future of bitterns in the UK because the Somerset Levels will not be affected by sea level rise like many of the East Anglian sites and it’s in a part of the country with milder winters. It should be a great place for bitterns and now it is. With 25 booming bitterns, Somerset rates second in the league table of counties after Suffolk (33) but ahead of Norfolk (23), Cambridgeshire (7) and Lincolnshire (4).
Many of the Somerset birds are now found in newly created wetlands like the RSPB Ham Wall nature reserve which simply weren’t there 20 years ago. This is visionary habitat recreation (I can say that as I played only a small part in it) which delivers for a highly vulnerable threatened species (now, as a result, much less vulnerable) and a whole range of other wetland species benefit at the same time. Many talk about this sort of thing but the RSPB actually does it.
Although the RSPB has not done it on its own and its nice to see that Natural England have been allowed by Defra to say a few words - on which subject, more soon,
The Somerset Levels is now the place to go to see heron-like tall birds. When I was a kid it used to be the grey herons of Tealham/Tadham Moor that attracted me down there, but now there are all these bitterns and little egrets with a chance of cattle egret, great white egret and little bittern too. And cranes!
Saving species seems to be sadly out of fashion with some conservation organisations these days but I know that lots of RSPB staff will feel buoyed up by the recovery in bittern numbers that the RSPB has led. This type of work is not easy – it requires imagination, determination, deep understanding of ecology, lots of money and the best staff available.
More thoughts on species conservation, prompted by this great conservation success story, in a few days time.