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Nature offers a window on global natural history, providing a unique insight into the natural world, the environment, and the magnificent creatures that inhabit it.
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Listen to 16 June
Paul Evans
Monday 16 June 2003
Ruddy Duck
Ruddy Duck

Birds on the Brink

In Nature this week, Paul Evans traces the fortunes of three 'birds on the brink'. All three have uncertain futures in Britain as they are non-native species and each is creating controversy among naturalists.

The North American ruddy duck escaped from a wildfowl collection and was initially considered to be an attractive addition to the British fauna. By the end of the Millennium  at least four thousand ruddy ducks were living harmlessly in Britain.

But in Spain it was a different story. British ruddy ducks migrate there and mate with a rare relative, the white-headed duck. The resulting hybrid  chicks are threatening the already dwindling white-headed duck populations.

Earlier this year, the UK government announced that the ruddy duck would be effectively eradicated from the wild in Britain. Its proposed action is supported by many conservation bodies,  but has attracted opposition from naturalists and animal welfare organisations who are concerned that it would cause disruption, cruelty and cost too much - at around £900 per duck.

If eradication is a step too far too late, it may be better to stop non-native bird populations from establishing themselves in the first place.

A handful of European eagle owls, probably of escaped origin, now breed in Britain. They have been known to feed on cats, small dogs and birds of prey which could potentially cause conflict. The birds cannot be eradicated unless they have escaped from a collection. So have they? Or are they welcome new arrivals from a spreading population?

Finally, the great bustard is not yet on British shores, but it will be if Wiltshire man David Walters succeeds with his plan. Paul Evans goes to Salisbury Plain to meet David,  who’s committed to bringing back the great bustard to places where it hasn’t bred for 170 years. Exterminated by hunters, this enormous bird is on the county crest of Wiltshire and has close associations with the area. But under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the bustards are now treated as a non-native species, so their return hangs in the balance.
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