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Saturday, September 3, 2011

The bittern is back: One of Britain's rarest birds returns from brink of extinction to enjoy its best year on record

Number of breeding males tops 100 for first time since 1997, when it almost died out

By Daily Mail Reporter

The bittern, one of the UK's rarest birds, has had its best year on record.

The numbers of breeding males has topped 100 for the first time since it came back from extinction in 1997.

Conservationists said the results of the latest survey of breeding males, which experts are able to count from their distinctive 'booming' calls, revealed there were 104 birds across England, up from 11 just 15 years ago.

Rare bird: The bittern has had its best year on record, with numbers of breeding males topping 100 for the first time since virtual extinction in 1997

The bird was prized as a medieval banquet dish in the past and its numbers were further hit by hunting and the loss of its reedbed habitat as wetlands were drained, actually became extinct in the UK in 1886.

It managed to recolonise the Norfolk Broads in 1911, but while numbers rose until the 1950s they then crashed once more to a low point in 1997.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said the population increase in recent years was down to focused conservation efforts to create and maintain habitat for the species - with measures put in place up to 20 years ago now paying off.

The latest rise was 'very exciting', according to the RSPB's Grahame Madge, who added: 'The fact that these birds have increased so much given the relatively hard winters - and we know they can suffer in the bad weather - is very encouraging.'

The latest annual count of booming bitterns revealed that most were found in their traditional stronghold of East Anglia, but the bird has also benefited from efforts to improve habitat in Somerset, a county the species recolonised in 2008.

This year researchers recorded 25 males in the Somerset Levels, making Somerset the second most important county for the birds after Suffolk, where 33 booming males were heard.

Helping hand: The revival of the bittern has almost entirely been down to conservation work by the RSPB at nature reserves such as this one in Dungeness

The majority of the booming males (85 per cent) in England were heard on nature reserves.

The survey also recorded the number of nesting bitterns, with at least 63 nests confirmed in 26 sites.

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

Martin Harper, conservation director for the RSPB, said: 'To lose the bittern once in Britain was regrettable, but to have lost it twice would have been unforgivable.

'Concern for the bittern in the 1990s led to an intensive species-recovery programme, with research and habitat improvement and creation playing major roles.

'Focused work on bitterns has led to great gains for reedbeds and all the wildlife associated with this priority habitat.

Last shot: The bittern's numbers were cut by hunting in more recent years, but it was a staple at banquets further back in history

'This species-led approach to bittern conservation has been vital for recovery of the bird in England.'

The RSPB warned that there were still threats facing the bittern, in particular damage to freshwater reedbeds in coastal areas by rising sea levels which would inundate the habitats with saltwater and make them unsuitable for the birds.

And if funding for conservation efforts targeted at the bird were to dry up, the record numbers seen this year would represent a peak, from which it would likely decline again, the wildlife charity warned.

Natural Environment Minister Richard Benyon said: '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.'

Pete Brotherton, head of biodiversity at government agency Natural England, said: 'This is an encouraging sign that we can restore and improve our wetland habitats, which bring vital benefits to both people and wildlife.'



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