PETER FROST has good news on one of Britain’s shyest and rarest birds.

One of Britain’s rarest birds, the bittern (Botaurus stellaris) is making a dramatic comeback from extinction.

Last year (2012) was the best on record with numbers of breeding males topping a hundred for the first time in recent years.

There were less than a dozen here in 1997.

These impressive results come from the latest survey of males, which experts are able to count from their distinctive booming call.

Historically the bittern was once a relatively common British bird.

In medieval times it was most popular as a banquet dish.

Its buttery delicious flesh led to it being named the buttery bittern. Hunting for food reduced bittern numbers.

The other factor that led to its decline was the loss of its freshwater reed-bed habitat as wetlands were drained for agriculture.

Finally the bittern became extinct in the UK in 1886.

The species managed to re-establish itself in the Norfolk Broads in 1911.

It spread throughout the country. One was shot in Cassiobury Park Watford in the 1930’s.

Numbers rose until the 1950s but then crashed again to a desperately low point in 1997.

Work over the last twenty years by the Broads National Park Authority, Wildlife Trusts, Natural England and the RSPB have resulted in the population increase in recent years.

These intense conservation efforts to create and maintain habitat for the species are now paying off.

However we mustn’t become complacent.

Hard winters can be destructive to the species as can inundation of freshwater reed-beds in coastal areas by rising sea levels which would flood habitats with saltwater and make them unsuitable for the birds.

Most bitterns are found in their traditional stronghold of East Anglia particularly in the beautiful Broads National Park.

The birds – like small dappled herons – are shy and incredibly well camouflaged blending perfectly with the golden reeds and sedge that fringe broads and rivers. This makes spotting them really difficult.

There silhouette in flight is distinctive.

The species has also benefited from habitat improvement on the Somerset Levels – that other great English wetland area.

Bitterns returned to the drains and rivers of the reed fringed Levels in 2008.

Last year’s survey recorded 25 males in the Somerset Levels.

The nationwide bittern survey recorded at least 63 bittern nests in 26 sites.

21 nests were in Suffolk, making it the best county for nesting bitterns, closely followed by Somerset where 19 nests were recorded.

A small corner of Lancashire at Leighton Moss also has a population of bitterns.

There are still major threats facing the bittern and much of our other vunerable wildlife – and some come from our Coalition Government.

Under Cameron and Clegg’s instruction Defra is cutting conservation funding to National Parks, Natural England and similar bodies.

The pair’s post election promise to be “the greenest government ever” has long been abandoned.

It would be a disaster if these short sighted cuts meant that 2012 would represent a peak, from which bitterns and other wildlife populations would likely decline again.

Natural Environment Minister Richard Benyon said recently: ”To see a species that was once extinct in the UK rise to a population of over 100 is a real achievement.

”This is largely down to the work of the RSPB and Natural England, and shows what can be done if we work together.”

Grand words Mr. Benyon. What a pity you and your government are not putting your money where your mouth is.

First published in the Morning Star, 2013


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