En­dan­gered bit­tern boom­ing once more thanks to habi­tats

Macclesfield Express - - THE LAUGHING BADGER - SEAN WOOD

THE bit­tern – a type of heron ex­tinct in the UK at the turn of the 20th cen­tury – is bounc­ing back to full re­cov­ery.

Sci­en­tists count bit­terns by lis­ten­ing for the male’s foghorn-like boom­ing song, and this year more than 150 males have been recorded in Eng­land and Wales, mak­ing it an ex­cep­tional year in re­cent times, with num­bers not thought to be sur­passed since early in the 19th cen­tury.

Bit­tern num­bers peaked at around 80 boom­ing males in the 1950s, but had de­clined to only 11 boom­ing males in Eng­land in 1997. Con­cern over a sec­ond UK ex­tinc­tion led to a con­certed con­ser­va­tion pro­gram which is driv­ing the cur­rent re­cov­ery. The bit­tern was ab­sent as a breed­ing bird be­tween the 1870s and 1911.

Dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son, the bit­tern prefers large tracts of wet reed-bed – a habi­tat which, two decades ago, in the UK had be­come scarce and un­der man­aged. Reg­u­lar read­ers will re­call my men­tions of the amaz­ing job the RSPB and vol­un­teers have done at Leighton Moss, in Lan­cashire, now a reg­u­lar strong­hold of the bit­tern, and also a fine se­lec­tion of some of the UK’s rarest birds, which have also ben­e­fited greatly from the man­age­ment pro­gramme, in­clud­ing marsh har­ri­ers, bearded tits and av­o­cets.

Leighton Moss is less than two hours drive from the cen­tre of Manch­ester, and there are many ex­cit­ing ac­tiv­i­ties year round for all the fam­ily.

For ex­am­ple, the te­le­scope and binoc­u­lars open week­end, Au­gust 28, 29, 30, 31, is ideal if you fancy hav­ing a go out­doors with­out the pres­sure of the try­ing them out in a shop, and RSPB staff will be on hand to give you im­par­tial ad­vice.

The bit­tern is a species which proves that con­ser­va­tion can be suc­cess­ful, es­pe­cially when you can iden­tify the rea­son be­hind its de­cline and bring in mea­sures and fund­ing to aid its re­cov­ery. Leighton Moss is one such reed bed.

Over the last 25 years there have been sev­eral more sig­nif­i­cant habi­ta­trestora­tion projects across the coun­try, some of which are now RSPB na­ture re­serves, in­clud­ing:

Ham Wall, in Som­er­set, which was cre­ated from old peat work­ings from 1995. The bit­tern has been boom­ing regularly from 2008 with first nest­ing in that year. In 2015, 17 boomers have been recorded at the site.

Lak­en­heath, in Suf­folk: this wet­land site was con­verted from car­rot fields from 1995. Bit­terns were first recorded boom­ing here in 2006 and the first con­firmed nest­ing was recorded in 2009. This year six boom­ing males are be­ing recorded on site.

Ouse Fen, in Cam­bridgeshire: This part­ner­ship pro­ject with Han­son has seen wet­land cre­ation for­mer min­eral work­ings, which started around 10 years ago. In time, it will be the largest reed bed in the UK. The first con­firmed boom­ing was in 2012, with 10 recorded in 2015.

Ac­cord­ing to this year’s fig­ures, the top UK county for bit­terns is Som­er­set, with more than 40 boom­ing males. Fol­low­ing the restora­tion and ex­ten­sive cre­ation of large wet­lands in the Avalon Marshes, at Ham Wall (RSPB), Shap­wick Heath (Nat­u­ral Eng­land) and Westhay Moor (Som­er­set Wildlife Trust), bit­terns be­came re-es­tab­lished in Som­er­set in 2008.

East Anglia with more than 80 boom­ing male bit­terns re­mains the bit­tern’s re­gional strong­hold in the UK, par­tic­u­larly in tra­di­tional sites on the Suf­folk Coast, and in the Nor­folk Broads but also in­creas­ingly in the Fens, par­tic­u­larly at newly cre­ated habi­tat.

More than half (over 59 per cent) of the boom­ing males are on sites pro­tected un­der in­ter­na­tional law; the Euro­pean Union’s Birds and Habi­tat’s Di­rec­tives.

The Laugh­ing Badger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Pad­field, Glos­sop

●● A great bit­tern, Bo­tau­rus stel­laris, walk­ing through reedbed habi­tat

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