£4m to help rare birds thrive

By David GreenEnvironment CorrespondentA NEW £4 million project aimed at doubling the population of one of Britain's rarest species of bird is to be mainly centred on East Anglia.

By David Green

Environment Correspondent

A NEW £4 million project aimed at doubling the population of one of Britain's rarest species of bird is to be mainly centred on East Anglia.

The project will see work to improve habitat for bitterns at five Suffolk sites - Minsmere, Walberswick, Dunwich, Aldeburgh and Lakenheath - as well as Titchwell and How Hill in Norfolk.

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A coalition of eight conservation organisations will spearhead the project, which was launched yesterday and for which the European Union's LIFE nature programme is providing 60% of the funding.

In Britain so far this year about 40 male bitterns have been recorded making their territorial “booming” sound. The number of females is less certain.

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While total numbers are thought to be the highest since 1983, the population is still only half what it was in the 1950s.

By 1997 there were only 11 booming males - confined to sites in only four counties - and conservationists feared the species was on the verge of extinction in Britain.

The decline was caused by habitat losses as many reedbeds were drained for agricultural use, while others were allowed to dry out and be invaded by scrub vegetation.

In the past six years the RSPB and other conservation organisations have been spending large sums of money in habitat restoration and the creation of new reedbeds, such as those now taking shape at Lakenheath Fen.

There is now optimism the bittern will not become extinct in Britain, although the size of the population is still small.

Eight “boomers” have been heard this year at Minsmere - Britain biggest bittern site - and others have been recorded at the RSPB's North Warren reserve between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness and at the Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Dingle Marshes, Dunwich.

The £4m now made available will finance the excavation of new reedbeds and open water feeding areas, while existing habitat will also be improved.

RSPB project manager, Sarah Alsbury, said: “When nesting, bitterns need large reedbeds with areas of open shallow water. The loss and deterioration of this habitat fuelled the bird's decline.”

Minsmere site manager, Geoff Welch, added contractors would be excavating land to provide new shallow feeding areas for bitterns and reinstating pools and ditches which had become silted up. “The aim is to make more areas bittern-friendly,” he said.


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