Meeting the Great Bustard. Giant of Salisbury Plain
by Rebecca Davies BSc (Hons).

Introduction

Meeting the Great Bustard
This is the Wiltshire flag:

The wiltshire flag showing the great bustard

The green and white stripes represent the chalk downland, and the segmented circle, henge monuments. But the bird is a strange creature; it is a big, powerful legged avian. It may be a fabulous Heraldic bird. But then again, it may actually exist. This is Otis tarda: the Great Bustard.

The name `Bustard` is derived from the Latin, Avis Tarda, (Slow bird). You’ll find Great Bustards in a scattered belt from Spain through to Asia.

The woodcut you see below is by Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). 

Thomas Bewick woodcut of the great bustard

They prefer running to flying. But they certainly can fly even though they are the worlds heaviest flying bird. Bustards have been measured at over 20kg.

A great bustard in flight
Great Bustard (Otis tarda) Salisbury Plain part of a reintroduction project with birds imported under DEFRA licence from Russia.

A collective noun

A group of Great Bustards is known as a Drove. This may contain from 20-40 birds. They eat pretty much anything they can pick up, from beans and grapes to insects and small mice. Bustards attract and mate during a process known as a lek.  The male bustard chooses his ground and fluffs out his white under feathers until he looks like a big pompom. 

The great bustard showing his display

The mating ritual

Later on the females will show an interest in the male’s big dance. Female Bustards are much smaller than the males. Their hein plumage is much more cryptic.

Bustards do not pair as such but the female will visit several males before she chooses one. They mate and disperse to nest and the cock takes no further part in the proceedings.

Nesting habits

Bustards are ground nesting birds. She does not lay many eggs, two being the average clutch. This is a problem if she has nested in a crop with an early harvest date.  If harvesting machinery comes around she will sit rigid and be destroyed by the machinery along with her eggs. This is a double disaster, eggs can be replaced but not adult females. Hence, Bustard conservation hinges around making sure she has a safe place to raise her family in.  It must also be fairly secure against predators.

After a month the eggs hatch. The chicks are beautifully mottled. They are precocious little creatures and can run around soon.  However they are dependent on their mother to teach them what they can eat.

The bustard in Britain

Great bustards have a close association with sheep farming.  Yet they seem to have an association with areas of mixed agricultural activity these days. This distinct bird is part of British culture.

The bustard features in heraldry.  It is also the symbol of the Wiltshire branch of the Guides.

Girl guide badge showing the great bustard.
Cambridge County council coat of arms
Cambridge County council coat of arms 

There are two pubs going by the name of the Great Bustard – one indeed upon Salisbury plain. The other a coaching inn near Shrewton on the old Devizes to Salisbury road but it closed some years ago

As the famed bird of Wiltshire, the Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Magazine printed several accounts of the last of these birds in the county.  Most of these were memories of downsmen and shepherds encountering the increasingly scarce birds in their youth.

Agricultural changes got the blame for the bustard’s decline. But invariably the last specimens fell prey to collectors. One such being ahapless female who, in 1871, became the last bustard served up at a feast.  This particular bird’s skin is now stuffed and on display in Salisbury museum. 

The Re-Introduction of the Great Bustard

In 2004, after an over 150 year absence, the Great Bustard saw introducing back into this country. This is David Waters pet project.  He encountered bustards on birdwatching tours in the ex-Soviet Union in the 1990s.

My visit

Cottages

I was fortunate enough to get a chance to see the reserve and (hopefully) the birds at the end of Covid lockdown in May of 2021.  Isn’t it exciting to get out and about again?

I travelled to some place on Salisbury plain – I can’t quite identify the location of. Anywhere south of Pewsey is terra incognita to me. A land of rolling patchwork fields, thatched cottages interspersed with gentle river valleys and the odd tank crossing sign. 

Meeting with David on the farm we set off along the byway in the project Land Rover.  He explained that the Bustards don’t like to see people as they’re shy but aren’t t bothered by vehicles or horses.  As David explained, pretty much all land in Britain has been under human influence for a very long time.  With my experience of archaeology in some very remote areas, I could not help but agree with that. 

At length we got to the hide.

Examining the reserve

Then we settled to examine the reserve.  An area planted variably. The reserve has an area surrounded by a fox and badger proof fence. (But stoats and birds of prey can still get in)  The bustards can go out, and indeed most hens nest outside the reserve. And there they are.  What is that fawn blotch?  This is the male bustard.  Isn’t he huge?

The great bustard

Which is the best I could do even with a good zoom and anti-shake camera.  The bird was on the other side of the valley!  Getting close to a wild bustard is not an easy task.

David had his very powerful monocular which gave a good view of the male.  You could see his moustache blow in the breeze. I was also shown the nesting hen.  She was almost impossible to see even when she put up her head to peer around.  An impossible shot for my camera.

Most downland birds are in decline in this country. Not here! We saw ravens, yellowhammers, stonechats, red tailed kite and a quail, I also saw a Roe deer and a Hare.  This land is full of wildlife as well as being busy with agriculture and abundant archaeological remains, all less than a kilometre away from one of the roads of Salisbury Plain, and noisy artillery.

Conclusion

According to DEFRA bustards are not a native species! What have we been talking about all this article?  Here is a bird that is exotic…yet very British.

The project has been successful, and now these birds are striking awe into the people of Wiltshire again. And the Heraldic bird is no longer a mystery.

Many thanks to David Waters for taking the time to show me his birds.


Bibliography

1.Great Bustard Group https://greatbustard.org/ (Accessed May 2021)

2
. Great Bustards, Salisbury Museum. Great Bustards | The Salisbury Museum(Accessed May 2021)

Smith, A. C. (rev). 1867. Wiltshire Archaeological and natural History Magazine. The Great Bustard Vol III, p. 129-145.