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Poor Bittern Breeding Season

Bittern Recovery Suffers Setback

The recovery of the bittern, one of Britain’s rarest birds has suffered something of a setback, say researchers who have just completed a UK-wide survey of the birds this summer.

Related to the more familiar heron, the bittern was at an extremely low ebb in Britain in 1997 when a similar survey found only 11 males. Although this year’s count revealed a minimum of 46 male bitterns, when compared with last year’s bumper count of 55 males, this is a significant drop.

The bittern is dependent upon large tracts of wet reedbed to find sufficient food, principally fish and amphibians. In the 1950s, the bittern was more common, but the drainage of wetlands and the general deterioration of reedbeds led to the decline that continued to the late 1990s. The bittern has a distinctive booming call, with the males audible for up to three miles. Monitoring these calls enables researchers to count these otherwise secretive birds.Suffolk is now the UK’s most important county for bitterns with a minimum of 20 booming males (up one from last year), but Norfolk’s bittern population has suffered a significant decline, dropping from 19 males down to 11 over the same period, with the most noticeable drop occurring in the Broads. The bittern’s fortunes in some counties continued to improve: Dorset recorded its first booming bittern in recent years, while Cambridgeshire doubled its population from two to four. There was disappointment for researchers in Wales, Kent and Somerset, where last year’s survey had recorded one, three and one booming bittern respectively but this year none were found.Allan Drewitt, senior ornithologist for English Nature, said: The record of 55 booming males in 2004 was a major achievement and fantastic news for all those working hard to establish a thriving population of bitterns in the UK. Although still a significant improvement on past figures, the drop in numbers this year is a reminder that we must continue to create new reedbeds if we are to secure a long-term future for this rare and vulnerable bird.

Dr Ken Smith of the RSPB, said: In spite of this small setback the recovery of the breeding bittern population is a conservation success story and a credit to the wide range of organisations involved. The European Union’s LIFE fund, which has financed a good deal of the work, deserves particular praise. However, the bittern population still has some way to go before it is secure.

[English Nature and the RSPB organise the annual bittern monitoring programme.]

4th July 2014