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Britain`s Bitterns Booming!

English Nature and the RSPB say it is a boom time for Britain`s bitterns

The bittern has become one of Britain`s greatest wildlife success stories, says the RSPB and English Nature, as figures released today reveal the number of these rare shy herons has increased fivefold in just seven years. In 1997 only eleven bitterns were found during a UK-wide survey, but this year experts counted at least 55 bitterns at 30 sites, including strongholds in East Anglia and around the Humber with others in Lancashire, Wales, Kent and Somerset. A government action plan for the bittern hoped for 50 booming bitterns by 2010, but the target has been broken six years early.

Dr Gillian Gilbert, the RSPB`s bittern researcher, said: Bitterns are now recovering at a faster rate than anyone dared hope for only a few years ago, when its numbers were in steep decline. The bittern needs extensive wet reed-beds to survive but decades of drainage, pollution, and lack of management destroyed most of their available habitat and by 1997 we feared it faced imminent extinction in Britain. [The bittern has had a chequered history in Britain. After decades of persecution the bird finally became extinct by about 1886. It re-colonised in 1911 and the population increased to an estimated 80 booming males in the 1950s. After this peak, the population declined once more to its recent low point in 1997.]

Dr Andy Brown, head of ornithology at English Nature, said: Today`s announcement is testament to the success of a wide range of partners in restoring this country`s reed-beds. While rescuing the bittern, the work has helped a range of other spectacular wetland species, from the otter to the marsh harrier. The future of conservation in England will increasingly rely on partners working together to restore the fortunes of some of our rarest species and habitats.Backed by the European Union and The Cooperative Bank, conservationists launched an ambitious and successful survival plan for the bird in Britain primarily creating and restoring a network of sites, across England and Wales, large enough for bitterns. [The Co-operative Bank has been the official species sponsor of the bittern and the RSPB receives ?10,000 per year towards its habitat restoration work. The Heritage Lottery Fund and Defra have provided funds for habitat management work at key bittern sites.] Additional effort has been spent on researching the bittern`s ecological requirements and monitoring their numbers. The bittern is a conservation priority across Europe. Recognising this importance, the European Union`s Life-Nature programme has part funded two projects in the UK to help restore the bittern`s fortunes. The latest project, launched last year by a consortium of organisations [see editors` notes] will restore and create a network of 19 bittern-friendly sites across England. It is hoped that when these sites are mature enough they will help expand the bittern population to reach the next milestone of 100 booming males by 2020. The Broads Authority; English Nature; Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust; Lancashire Wildlife Trust; Lea Valley Regional Park Authority; The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; Rye Harbour Nature Reserve; and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are all partners in the European Union-funded Life-Nature project entitled: Developing a strategic network of SPA reedbeds for Botaurus stellaris [the bittern].Commenting on the vulnerability of the bittern, Dr Ken Smith, the head of aquatic research at the RSPB, said: Habitat destruction and persecution pushed the bittern to extinction in Britain by 1886. Fortunately, the bird re-colonised a few decades later. We shouldn`t be complacent as pressures still threaten this vulnerable bird. For example, half the sites holding booming bitterns this year are at risk from rising sea levels.

For further information please contact: Grahame Madge, RSPB press officer, on 01767 681577

4th July 2014