It’s hard to believe that less than 200 years ago these magnificent birds were regularly seen on the outskirts of Scarborough.
The world’s heaviest flying bird, the male great bustard (Otis tarda) averages around 90cm to 105cm tall (2ft 10in to 3ft 5in), with a wingspan of between 210cm and 250cm (6ft 10in to 8ft 2in) and can weigh up to 16kg, or around 35lb. Despite its rather turkey-like appearance, the two birds are unrelated.
The great bustard became extinct in this country in the 1830s, possibly due to its spectacular appearance making it popular as a sporting trophy – on the exhaustingly exhaustive website Victorian Taxidermy which documents the collection of Thomas Hudson Nelson at the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough, can be found heart-breaking accounts of communities of bustards wiped out for sport.
A Mr WH St Quintin, in an account from 4 March 1902, says: “In the churchyard at Lowthorpe is buried Agars, for some time keeper in our family [who] once killed 11 great Bustards at a shot on the Wolds.”
And a Mr Hebden recalled that in about 1811 he saw ‘five large Bustards on Flixton Wold, that number continuing there at least two years, when two were killed; the remaining three still continued on the same Wold for at least one year, when two disappeared, leaving the solitary bird, which, after a length of time, was severely wounded by Sir William Strickland’s keeper, and found some days afterwards in a turnip field near Hunmanby, by the huntsman of the Scarborough Harriers, and secured’. Mr AS Bell adds that this poor bird ‘was brought to Scarborough and cooked at a supper given by the hunt’.
The bird in our picture, now in the taxidermy section of the collection at Scarborough Museums and Galleries was shot near Foxholes in 1819, and the stuffed and mounted specimen presented to the museum by a Peter Murray.
If, however, you’d prefer to see the live version in the wild, The Great Bustard Group is attempting to establish a self-sustaining population of great bustards in Wiltshire and create practical conservation measures for the birds in Russia, from where it sources birds for the UK project.