Bittern - Developing a strategic network of SPA reedbeds for Botaurus stellaris

LIFE02 NAT/UK/008527

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Contact details:

Project Manager: Sarah ALSBURY
Tel: +44 1767 680 551
Fax: +44 1767 683211
Email: sarah.alsbury@rspb.org.uk

Project description:


The bittern (Botaurus stellaris)is a secretive bird found most often in marshes and extensive stands of reedbed. The evocative booming call of the male during the breeding season is often the only sign of its presence. Over the last century, the species has been in steady decline throughout Europe, principally due to the loss of suitably large reedbeds. The UK is no exception. The highest recorded levels this century were in the 1950s when 50 booming males were heard. This dropped down to just 11 by 1997, pushing the bird to the edge of extinction. A first LIFE-Nature project “Urgent action for the Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)in the UK” (LIFE96 NAT/UK/003057) did much to halt this decline, and numbers have gradually recovered since, reaching 30 in 2001. But the species still remained highly vulnerable, with poor breeding success at some sites, sub-optimal habitat at others and, in particular, the lack of a suitable network of sites to allow fledged young to disperse and establish new breeding populations.


The LIFE-Nature project intended to take the conservation measures one step further by expanding the range of breeding sites and increasing the number of areas suitable for dispersing young and over-wintering birds. The long-term aim was to establish a more extensive network of strategically located and self-sustaining sites across the UK. This would be achieved in two ways: by optimising the conservation potential within eight existing SPAs already harbouring bittern, and by creating the right conditions for re-colonisation at a further 11 sites (generally located away from the core population, in order to encourage expansion). Specifically this would involve creating seven new reedbeds, enlarging five smaller ones, rehabilitating three dry reedbeds and increasing the productivity of four that already hosted bittern. The beneficiary expected that as a result of these measures the number of booming bitterns in the UK would more than double to 65 and the number of breeding meta-populations would increase from four to 13 within ten years. Implementing such a programme requires an effective partnership, which is why a consortium of four NGOs and four statutory agencies/local authorities was formed to run the project. The collective advice and experience gained within this project was to be disseminated, in order to enhance the network by encouraging the addition of further new sites.


The project has been very successful in terms of its outputs. Nineteen sites were originally identified in the project proposal, with Poole Harbour being added through a subsequent project modification. The project comprised both restoration work at existing reedbed sites and the creation of new reedbeds. Despite delays in land purchase and in obtaining necessary permissions at some sites, the project met or exceeded most of its original objectives. One hundred and forty-one hectares of land was bought for nature conservation, 19 km of ditch and lake margin was re-profiled and 18 km of new ditch was dug, and 244 ha of new reedbed was established. The project also carried out a comprehensive dissemination programme, raising public awareness of the important work being carried out. It is difficult at this stage to assess the outcome of the project. Bittern numbers increased significantly in 2004 but have subsequently declined, and nesting success is still low. Time will be required to see if Bittern numbers increase on the project sites, and consequently if sites that are not currently protected can be designated as SPAs under the Birds Directive. Long-term management plans are in place at all project sites and a comprehensive monitoring programme has been set up by the project partners, in order to secure a successful legacy for the project. Socio-economic benefits: The project has had direct and indirect economic and social benefits. Direct benefits have included the employment of three full-time equivalents through the project. It has also provided work for many local contractors, which will help stimulate local economies, although the value of such contracts is not quantified in the final report. There are also a wide range of indirect socio-economic benefits resulting from the project. For example, the publicity for the project and the increased profile of the sites will help to maintain visitor numbers. Furthermore, the restoration and enhancement of sites such as Leighton Moss and creation of new reserves (e.g. Langford Lowfields, Potteric Carr and Ham Wall), will stimulate renewed interest in sites, which will help sustain visitor numbers. The RSPB has carried out studies, which show that nature reserves contribute greatly to the local economy. It is likely therefore that the project will be contributing to the development of green tourism and economic development. The project also investigated the sustainable use of reedbed products, such as animals from grazing and reed for thatching. Ideally, these products would be sold in the local economy, providing a natural resource, employment and giving reedbeds an economic value again. Although reedbeds currently have little economic value, the project has promoted the importance of sustainable uses of reed, including newer ideas, such as biofuel and compost. In particular, it has trialled composting of reed (at the Ham Wall site) and this has shown that it is feasible to make a high quality compost with a potential retail value. Additional funding has been secured to continue with the trials and to carry out a marketing study of potential outlets. Innovation/demonstration value: The project has shown high levels of innovation and has been of high demonstration value. It has developed a number of new methods for reedbed management for bitterns, which have been based on RSPB research and consultations with others working on bitterns in the UK and Europe. These have aimed to provide more efficient and sustainable methods of enhancing and maintaining the quality of reedbed habitats for bitterns. In particular, at Leighton Moss, cement pumping machinery was brought over from the USA and used here for the first time to remove accumulated mud and rhizomes from a water-body. Despite a few initial problems the technique was very successful and the machinery is now available for other conservation work. Other innovations have included the use of an amphibious reedcutter, the Truxor, at three project sites, trials of reed composting at one site (see 6.4) and new grazing regimes at a number of reserves. These innovations and other lessons learnt from the project have been demonstrated through published dissemination materials, two mini-conferences and the hosting of visits by conservationists working on reedbeds and bitterns. Several of the sites were regularly used to demonstrate the methods used e.g. Minsmere, Lakenheath Fen and Ham Wall. The lessons have also been disseminated to many of the key organisations working on reedbed conservation in the UK through the Steering Committee and project partners and members of the Technical Task Force. At a wider scale the project has contributed to the LIFE Co-op funded project,LIFE03 NAT/CP/D/000009, which has produced “The Bittern in Europe - A Guide to Species and Habitat Management”. The handbook, which is being distributed free-of-charge, will enable the experience built up by LIFE projects to be fully disseminated around the EU.


Environmental issues addressed:


Species - Birds


animal corridor‚  aquatic ecosystem‚  freshwater ecosystem‚  renaturation‚  wetlands ecosystem‚  wildlife sanctuary‚  site rehabilitation‚  public awareness campaign‚  public-private partnership‚  local authority‚  land restoration‚  land purchase‚  restoration measure‚  population dynamics

Target EU Legislation

  • Nature protection and Biodiversity
  • Directive 79/409 - Conservation of wild birds (02.04.1979)
  • Decision 93/626 - Conclusion of the Convention on Biological Diversity (25.10.1993)
  • COM(95) 189 - "Communication on the judicious use and conservation of wetlands" (12.12.1995)
  • COM(98)42 -"Communication on a European Community Biodiversity Strategy" (05.02.1998)
  • COM(2001)162 -"Biodiversity Action Plan for the conservation of natural resources (vol. I & II)" ...

Target species

 Botaurus stellaris     

Target Habitat types

  • 01 - Unknown (site without information)

Natura 2000 sites

Not applicable



Coordinator Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
Type of organisation NGO-Foundation
Description The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a charity registered under English law. The RSPB aims to be the UK’s foremost authority on the conservation of birds and their environment. It is 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. It manages 200 nature reserves and has over one million members.
Partners English Nature, United Kingdom Broads Authority, United Kingdom Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, United Kingdom Lancashire Wildlife Trust, United Kingdom Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, United Kingdom Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, United Kingdom Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, United Kingdom


Project reference LIFE02 NAT/UK/008527
Duration 01-FEB-2002 to 30-JUN -2006
Total budget 6,484,498.00 €
EU contribution 3,890,699.00 €
Project location North(United Kingdom) Yorkshire and Humberside(United Kingdom) East Midlands(United Kingdom) East Anglia(United Kingdom) South East (UK)(United Kingdom) South West (UK)(United Kingdom) West Midlands(United Kingdom) North West (UK)(United Kingdom)


Read more:

Project web site Project website
Publication: Layman report Layman report


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