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PETER FROST takes a look at efforts to help our feathered friends

The Victorian ladies’ taste for large elegant hats decorated with rare bird feathers and the Victorian manufacturers and shop keepers, with their total indifference to the natural world in which they lived and ran their businesses, spawned what is today Britain’s biggest conservation charity – The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Birds like the great crested grebe were hunted almost to extinction for their decorative plumage. Egg collectors, scientific specimen suppliers – it was a rare treat to shoot and stuff the last ever specimen of any species. Sports shooting, the misnomer for wholesale slaughter by so called country gentlemen – along with more understandable by still uncontrolled hunting for food all helped to devastate Britain’s bird populations.

Some of those threats are still there and others have been added by what we choose to call progress and improvement in the way we live. Changes in agriculture and land usage have taken away specific habitats that some bird breeds need to survive.

However today there are millions of people committed to protecting all aspects of our countryside and there is no doubt that things are moving in the right direction. Nature reserves have been established. Bird tables and garden feeders have made survival easier for many birds.

One of the species that was driven to extinction in these islands was Britain’s heaviest bird, the great bustard. Now, more than a century since it lived wild in our islands the RSPB have reintroduced the huge bird. All I am allowed to tell you is that the bustards have a new home somewhere on Salisbury Plain. Actual locations are a very well kept secret and sightings are almost all limited to a very few special viewing events.

Hopefully as the bird settles, breeds and spreads chances to see the re-introduced bustard will become easier. We’ll let you know.

Let’s finish with some really good news. The reintroduction of the red kite is one of British conservation’s greatest success stories. The one and a half metre wingspan bird of prey used to be really common. Historical texts tell us that red kites picked at the dead bodies displayed on Traitors Gate in the Tower of London.

Over the centuries the kite was persecuted into extinction but now it is back with a vengeance. Each year it spreads further and further from the original reintroduction sites.

Kites now fly over the M40 motorway and are spreading north and south across the midlands now reaching as far as the northern suburbs of London and the southern fringes of Birmingham. At other release areas like Rhandirmwyn in Wales it’s a rare day that the red kites don’t fly overhead amazing and delighting visitors and locals alike.

First published in the Morning Star, 2012

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