Boomtime for bitterns

Bittern. John Bridges

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.




14 Replies to “Boomtime for bitterns”

  1. As you say Mark, the RSPB actually “does it” and “gets things done”, especially in relation to threaten species. This is so important these days as so many people like to talk about what needs to be done but not many actually do it and ensure the goods are delivered, that’s the hard part. In this context I am very pleased to read of the current efforts, of which the RSPB is part I believe, to save the spoonbill sandpiper in the far east.

  2. Great news Mark about the Bitterns. Here in Oxfordshire on the Otmoor Reserve we have been trying to get a breeding pair for the last ten years! After the establishment of the reedbed we started to get overwintering birds, up to three at a time, but no booming and they haven’t stayed, yet. To underline the commitment of the RSPB staff, last winter when the reedbed froze over the local staff were to be seen (on a photo) out before dawn walking on the ice feeding fish to the bitterns. You’d think they would be more grateful wouldn’t you!

    1. Richard – yes, Otmoor should have bitterns and is a slightly annoying gap in the range – and makes it all the more remarkable that they are in Somerset in such numbers. I’m sure (fairly sure) they’ll come. The lack of boomers is the worry though. Other sites seem to follow the pattern of: wintering birds, more wintering birds. wintering birds and boomers and then breeding. BUt Otmoor is a fantastic place with or without bitterns isn’t it? There must be brown hairstreaks around at the moment unless they have just gone over? And the wildfowl in winter are good, and the starling roost is fantastic – and then it’s waiting for sopring and the waders to come back again!

  3. Very good news Mark. One tried in the Cotswold Water Park this year but at present there is not enough reedbed. I was going to object to one of your paragraphs but can’t remember which one it was.

  4. Do not want this to sound critical but parts of your blog do sound a bit NFU like as you said Bitterns would breed in Levels in 5 years and you admit it was a lot longer while you are castigating farmers for taking a long time to help wildlife,just seems strange.I feel sure you will help me as there are conflicting figures about Bitterns with a report in paper which I can only assume came from a expert on back page of Telegraph which has different wildlife snippets each day stated that 11 more Bitterns than 15 years ago.Surely this is incorrect.
    Are you able as someone who likes his taxes to produce the goods(a very admirable stance)able to say how much tax payers money has gone on increasing these numbers.
    I do of course enjoy seeing Bitterns on Levels and indeed Cranes,even if we do not see either there is always something to enjoy.
    Just a footnote,we went to Arne on Wednesday on free guided walk where general public are not allowed and was told just metres away from Ladybird spiders which we obviously did not see but we did see several Raft Spiders and Wasp Spiders.

    1. Dennis – I’m glad you and I are following in each others’ footsteps at Arne.

      Where have I castigated farmers exactly? It’s usualy the NFU I castigate because they are a thoroughly anti-environment organisation.

      I’ve never criticised farmers who are doing the right thing – not as far as I can remember anyway. My point, being honest, was that sometimes even if you are doing the right thing the birds (or butterflies or plants or whatever) don’t always respond exactly as you might have hoped. That is why the current Defra vogue for wishing to ‘pay by results’ would disadvantage many farmers who had ‘done the right thing’ but not yet had the luck to reap the wildlife rewards. You can’t expect wildlife to respond completely predictably.

      But not reaping the rewards immediately when you do the right thing is one thing, not doing the right thing at all is another thing. Getting farmers to do the right thing depends on having agri-environment schemes which contain the right things in the options and them being easy to do and well-enoughed financed. All of that is the job of Defra to ensure =- and they are falling down badly on it at the moment.

      Farmers aren’t signing up in droves to the CFE because they don’t want to – that’s up to them. But it was a bit foolish of the NFU to promise government that they could get allthose farmers signed up wasn’t it?

      If the Telegraph said that there are 11 more bitterns than 15 years ago then that is wrong – there are about 90 more booming male bitterns than 15 years ago.

    2. Dennis, It is not just about bittern numbers. That might be the headline item but to get there a particular habitat has been improved for many species. That should also be in the balance sheet.

  5. Hi Mark no I was not meaning you were castigating farmers but thought you sounded a bit like the NFU by exagerating how quick the Bitterns would breed on Levels but think I was mistaken.Perhaps my estimation of NFU is not much better than yours as remember 4 serious problems I had with them when farming and do not really think that should happen to a member.Like all unions think lots of members belong because they see it as a loyal thing to do.
    I know you go on about the ELS and even others perhaps not having the right wildlife friendly requirements but surely these demands have come from conservationists as do not think Governments could think them up alone and certainly farmers cannot be blamed for there content,not that I am suggesting you are blaming farmers.
    Think if farmers not taking the scheme up it probably shows it is not mostly attractive moneywise for a farm of average size.
    Think it is rather unfortunate when people quote Mr X getting large amounts of money from SFP which may of course I would assume include ELS or HLS but to get that large amount it is a massive business worth millions of £s and his return on capital is relatively small but then you know all that.
    Think you know that I wish more farmers did wildlife friendly things without considering the benefit in money terms but the world we live in that is a dream and almost everyone needs incentive of making the best profit from what they do.
    Personally think you may have to accept that you and NFU are not on the same wavelength and find a way to communicate with individual farmers or groups,not ideal and difficult.

    1. Dennis – if only the wildlife requirements of the schemes were dictated by conservationists! They are suggested by conservationists and then watered down after pressure from the farming lobby. This process has delivered the ‘not best’ of both worlds – schemes that don’t quite work fopr anyone.

  6. Mark,a very good explanation and one I totally agree with and so explains why farmers can comply with rules and you still not be happy.
    Hope you do not mind me mentioning here but see a article about the Cirl Bunting project and of course I do not know any great details but it does seem to be very successful and while participating farmers are only a part of it then to be a success they are avery important part and made me think that if only we could approach the whole farming community in the same way as obviously these farmers have been aproached maybe success in general wildlife would follow.
    Hi Bob,a very good point perhaps especially for Marsh Harriers as two pairs reared six young at Weymouth and think it was the same male for both broods.We saw him pass some food while flying to one youngster when we went to Radipole.

    1. Dennis – the cirl bunting story is an excellent example of government getting thigns right and farmers and conservationists doing the work together. There was a special set of grants for cirl bunting conservation – and those grants were based onresearch on cirl buntings done by RSPB scientists. Cirl buntings need: rough grassland in summer which is full of grasshoppers to feed their young, decent hedgerows for nesting and stubble fields in winter for seed food. And that’s what the grants encouraged. RSPB staff worked very clsoely with farmers in south Devon and persuaded many of them to go into the right schemes in the right ways. An excellent example of where things work well. But cirl buntings only live in parts of devon now – so there were relatively few farmers to work with and it was ‘worth’ the RSPB spending the money because it was likely to be successful. You can’t approach skylarks, or corn buntings in quite the same way. for the rarest species – cirl bunting, black grosue, stone curlew and corncrake – it’s possible to do intensive work in small areas and make a big difference on the species’s fate. for that suite of widespread but decklining farmland birds I think you need to try to design grant schemes that will work for lots of farmers, and lots of species, over lots of different farming systems – and that’s a big challenge.

      So, in principle, I think that ‘doing a cirl bunting’ more widely could work – but you would probably need 200 advisors in england to make that work – at a guess. Let’s say that each advisor costs £50pa – salary, NI, pesnion, travel, office costs etc – that’s £10m pa – a quite considerable cost.

  7. Of course you are right Mark but perhaps even less than 20p per person.I know it is not scientific and my english not that good but we would find 20p per person per year really easily for alcohol,fags,petrol,restuarant meals and dozens of other things.Hope my maths better than english.

  8. The Bitterns’ resurgence is splendid news, and hopefully the smaller, less glamorous species that rely on very specific and generally non-farmland habitat requirements will get a similar amount of effort devoted to them. Am thinking specifically of the on the face of it underwhelming but in reality very charming Willow Tit – a species in freefall in the UK. How late do we leave it before we try to do something proactive to arrest the decline? Should significant financial and human resources be committed to bringing back ‘lost’ flagship species like Common Crane, Great Bustard, White-tailed Eagle, Corncrake et al… or should they be diverted into stopping a crisis from becoming a wholescale disaster? Maybe (Willow) tits just aren’t sexy enough to grab the public’s attention and support? Discuss!

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