Bittern - Urgent action for the Bittern (Botaurus stellaris) in the UK

LIFE96 NAT/UK/003057

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Contact details:

Project Manager: Richard MOHUN
Tel: 44.1767.680551
Fax: 44.1767.692365
Email: richard.mohun@rspb.org.uk

Project description:


Bitterns (Botaurus stellaris) in Europe have declined dramatically during the last century. Habitat loss and deterioration - especially the reduction in Phragmites reedbeds and similar marshlands which are favoured by this large but secretive bird - are among the chief reasons for its general demise, and for its inclusion in Annex I of the Birds Directive. The recent trend to abandon traditional reed management has contributed to the present situation where the haunting, low, booming call of territorial male bitterns is no longer heard, or is heard less frequently, in many lowland wetlands of north-west Europe. In the UK, where the breeding population has dropped from a mid-1950s peak of around 80 booming males to 16 in 1994, the RSPB has prepared a recovery plan for bitterns. This project aimed to take key elements of this plan and put them into action so as to safeguard and enhance core areas of UK bittern habitat. To improve the conservation status of this species in Britain, the project would expand the available breeding habitat and improve habitat quality at 13 sites, mostly in East Anglia - the species' current stronghold - and at one outlying site in north-west England. This would be done in partnership with wetland management agencies in both the public and private sectors. Activities would specifically protect and enhance reedbed habitats; restore degraded reedbed habitats; and create new reedbeds adjacent to existing areas of this habitat. The expected result would be to provide suitable habitat in Britain to support a bittern population that is 2-3 times higher than at present, although it might take longer than the life of the project before the birds take up residence in their improved habitats. Finally, lessons learnt from this project would be shared with other relevant organisations across the EU to assist the implementation of the European bittern action plan.


The overall objective was to improve the conservation status of bitterns in Britain by improving the habitat quality of a number of SPAs and by expanding the available breeding habitat outside these SPAs. Specific objectives were: To halt and reverse the decline of Botaurus stellaris as a breeding bird in the UK by the reinstatement of suitable habitats, including reedbed and herb-rich fen, in the core areas of its current range of East Anglia. To ensure a favourable long-term trend in the number of breeding and wintering Botaurus stellaris in the UK by improving the sustainability of suitable sites, through facilitating effective management of levels and quality of water and nutrient status. Small-scale development of a limited number of sites, to help improve public awareness of Botaurus stellaris and associated reedbed conservation problems, provision of visitor and educational facilities and making available best-practice reed management training for reedbed owners.


The project was co-ordinated by RSPB on behalf of a partnership of 7 conservation organisations (3 statutory and 4 NGOs). It dealt with 13 sites covering approximately 5600 ha. A technical task force made up of leading UK technical experts on reedbed management and recreation supported the project. Before practical works the task force visited all the project sites to overview proposals, site details and the results of feasibility studies. Reports were used to ensure that work at each site was targeted in the best way to achieve the project objectives. The creation of a technical task force was a successful approach which could be transferred to other similar projects. The project ran into unforeseen problems with land purchase but succeeded in buying 98 ha of reedbeds and achieving a final total of 400 ha rehabilitated habitat, creating potential habitat for an estimated 25 bitterns. This will contribute up to 50% of the UK bittern action plan targets (50 birds by 2010) and has already acted as a catalyst for other similar reedbed habitat management projects around the UK. The project led to a second phase project ‘Developing a strategic network of SPA reedbeds for Botaurus stellaris’ (LIFE02NAT/UK/008527)which is to add a further 300 ha. The wetland engineering works generated opportunities for specialist habitat construction/management works in rural areas. Links with the local community were developed at some sites. As much of the reedbed habitat that has been restored will need to establish itself, it will take time for the numbers of breeding bittern on the sites to rise to their full potential. It may be a decade or more before the newly created sites are used to their full potential, but early results have been encouraging. When the project began in 1996 22 booming bitterns were recorded in the UK, down from a total in 1954 of 80 booming males. The number of breeding bittern then dropped due to a very hard winter, in 1997, down to 11 booming males but rose in 1999 back up to 19 boomers recorded in the UK. The project gave a significant contribution to the status of bittern in the UK; by 2003 the number of booming males had risen to 40. Water quality monitoring programs were put in place at project sites as high nutrient levels in water can lead to damage to the reedbeds. The project raised the profile of bittern in the UK by organising open days, setting up special viewing areas on sites, producing leaflets and notice boards and raising media interest. Annual seminars helped disseminate the developing knowledge on management of reedbed for bittern. The project had demonstration value: it developed successful techniques for managing reedbed habitat. For instance, aiming to mimic natural floodplain conditions with the use of water control structures. To improve the food resources for bittern, the project created or improved eel passes on some sites and introduced fish to other sites. The results of the habitat rehabilitation were disseminated nationally and internationally through meetings, seminars and exchange visits. In terms of the European Union Species Action Plan targets the project contributed to appropriate management of reedbeds, bought 98 ha of reedbed and brought it into conservation management, made links with European partners, set up bittern monitoring programmes and raised public awareness.


Environmental issues addressed:


Species - Birds


endangered species‚  protected area‚  public-private partnership‚  emergency plan‚  land purchase‚  restoration measure

Target EU Legislation

  • Nature protection and Biodiversity
  • Directive 79/409 - Conservation of wild birds (02.04.1979)

Target species

 Botaurus stellaris     

Target Habitat types

  • 7230 - Alkaline fens
  • 1150 - Coastal lagoons
  • 3150 - Natural eutrophic lakes with Magnopotamion or Hydrocharition - type vegetation

Natura 2000 sites

SPA UK9005091 Leighton Moss
SPA UK9009031 North Norfolk Coast
SPA UK9009101 Minsmere-Walberswick
SPA UK9009253 Broadland
SPA UK9009291 Benacre to Easton Bavents
SCI UK0012809 Minsmere to Walberswick Heaths and Marshes
SCI UK0012883 Holme Moor and Clean Moor
SCI UK0012884 Corsydd Môn/ Anglesey Fens
SCI UK0013104 Benacre to Easton Bavents Lagoons
SCI UK0014782 Fenland
SCI UK0017075 The Wash and North Norfolk Coast
SCI UK0019838 North Norfolk Coast



Coordinator Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Type of organisation NGO-Foundation
Description The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds RSPB is a charity registered under English law. The RSPB is the UK’s foremost authority on the conservation of birds and their environment. RSPB is also the UK partner for BirdLife International. In the UK the RSPB owns and manages land and seeks to influence land use practices and governmental policies. RSPB manages 168 nature reserves and has over 1 million members.
Partners Broads Authority English Nature Environment Agency National Trust Norfolk Wildlife Trust Suffolk Wildlife Trust


Project reference LIFE96 NAT/UK/003057
Duration 01-JUL-1996 to 31-MAR -2000
Total budget 3,756,072.64 €
EU contribution 1,878,036.31 €
Project location East Anglia(United Kingdom) North West (UK)(United Kingdom)


Read more:

Project web site Website www.bitterns.org.uk
Publication: Article-Paper Title: Management of RSPB Minsmere Reserve's Reedbeds and its Impact on Breeding Bitterns Author: Smith K,Welch G,Tyler G,Gilbert,Hawkins I,Hirons G Year: 2000 Editor: British Wildlife
Publication: Article-Paper Title: An Evaluation of the Results of "Emergency Action for Botaurus stellaris: The First EU LIFE Bittern Project in the UK" Author: White G Year: 2004 Editor: British Wildlife


Project description   Environmental issues   Beneficiaries   Administrative data   Read more   Print   PDF version