Published on 01 November 2011 in Letters

Michael Shrubb’s (2011) review of the histor- ical status of the Great Bustard Otis tarda in Britain very much follows our paper (Waters & Waters 2005) and we agree with most of what he writes. His main conclusion, that the Great Bustard did not colonise Britain until around the mid fifteenth century, is not new, however. Gurney (1921) suggested that not before 1555 did the Great Bustard take its place as a British species (Gurney listed some earlier mentions but these are not without reservations – for example, mentions of Bus- tards in 1338, 1370 and 1401 were later thought to refer to Bitterns). Whenever the colonisation of Britain occurred, it is likely to have been a slow process. The species’ high site fidelity and slow reproduction rates (Martin et al. 2008) makes rapid range expansion unlikely, and this has not been observed in modern times despite some sig- nificant population increases in areas where conservation measures have been imple- mented. Records indicate that bustards were present in Scotland, Yorkshire and Norfolk by the early sixteenth century (Yarrell 1884), and in Wiltshire probably by the end of the century. Whenever this colonisation took place, it seems strange to propose that the Great Bustard was not an indigenous species in Britain (the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines indigenous as ‘native, belonging naturally’).

Shrubb says that, save for the honourable exception of some major landowners in East Anglia, ‘no attempt was ever made to protect or conserve’ this bird. These landowners may not have been so exceptional, however. Saun- ders (in Yarrell 1884) records that Mr Hammond, following the example of his father, and most of his neighbours, allowed no molesting of the bustards on their estates. Saunders mentions protection by the Duke of Grafton at Euston, Mr Newton at Elveden and Messrs Gwilt at Icklingham (all in Suffolk). Bustards were regarded as game and came under the game laws, which, according to Saunders, were not usually enforced for bustards. Game was regarded as the private
property of the owners and occupiers of land (Landsborough Thomson 1964). This protec- tion aimed to conserve game so that it could be shot by the ‘right’ people. In 1534, in the Act for the protection of Wild Fowle (Yarrell 1884), the Great Bustard became one of the first birds to receive legal protection for its eggs, reflecting its high value as a quarry species. The species would most likely have been fairly familiar before receiving such legal status. During the reign of George III, the sporting season for bustards was altered to 1st December to 1st March (Mowbraye 1973), while a statute of 1775 protected the species from 1st March to 1st September. Indeed, bustards were even included in game lists until 1954 (Peter Scott in Landsborough Thomson 1964). Hence the legislation was there but apparently not well enforced – yet bustards occurred at a time when bird pro- tection, except under the game laws, was vir- tually non-existent.