'Wiltshire's iconic bird'


Latin Name: Otis Tarda.

Population Size: 33,005 (declining).

Habitat: Open Farmland and plains.

Lifespan: 15 - 20 years.

Diet: Omnivorous.

Favourite Foods: Insects, Lucerne, Red Clover, Nettles, Grain, Yarrow, vetch (pea family), sainfoin and grapes.

Endangered Species

Bustards are large birds frequently cited as the world's heaviest flying birds. Most prefer to run or walk over flying. They have long broad wings with "fingered" wingtips, and striking patterns in flight. The birds are highly social and live in groups, called droves. These droves are normally split between male and females, though will come together in winter and the breeding season.

Once a familiar sight in grassland areas of southern Britain, the world's heaviest bird suffered a dramatic decline in the early 19th Century due to hunting and a change in farming practices. Then in 1998 one man started a mission to bring them back to Wiltshire, his name was David Waters.


In 1988 the species was seen as THREATENED, but last year in 2023 it was placed onto the ENDANGERED list.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the Great Bustard population is declining rapidly globally due to the loss of its habitat due to agricultural practices and urban expansion, with climate change exacerbating these effects through increased extreme weather events and wildfires. In addition, illegal killing, elevated predation rates and disturbances are contributing to its demise.

In 1930 Germany had a population of 4,000, in 1995 only 55 remained. Berlin Zoo now has an active conservation programme. The Indian and Pakistan one had a strong population, but it has been decimated through illegal hunting, as the meat has been wrongly considered an aphrodisiac. One shooting party was found to have killed 2,100 birds. The situation is so bad, they will soon be extinct within this region.

Current forecasts show that by 2040 the population will decline by another 79% and added to the CRITICALLY endangered list.


It is estimated that there are between 29,600-33,005 bustards in the wild, including those in conservation programmes. These numbers are split between the following regions in the table below. Spain now accounts for over 75% of the worlds population.

England Portugal Spain Germany West Pannonia East Pannonia Morocco Turkey Ukraine Russia China & Mongolia
50 939 24,000 315 634 1,495 72 780 300 2,170 2,200
Small Seperator, Downton Distillery, Wiltshire


The males are heavily built, identified by their bulging neck, heavy chest and characteristically cocked tail. The males also develop a band of russet-coloured feathers on their lower neck and breast, which widens and brightens as they get older. Males also grow large impressive bold white moustache whiskers.

Males exceed a weight of 20 kg (44 lb) and can attain a total length of 150 cm (59 in), often 50% bigger & sometimes more than four times the weight of the females.

Once the breeding season is over the males do not help rear the chicks and will return to their droves.

Great Bustard, Conservation, Downton Distillery
Male Great Bustard in long grass. Note his white whiskers.
The males plummage has a tiger stripe pattern.
The males plummage has a tiger stripe pattern.
Female Bustard on Salisbury Plain


In spring these normally well-camouflaged birds transform. The males seem to puff themselves out, growing and turning white in an elaborate display. The male bustards choose their ground, turn their wings and tails inside out in a big puff of white feathers and inflate the gular pouch, a balloon in the neck and erect whiskers near the beak. This “wheel” or “foam-bath” is for the purpose of attracting females, the white feathers are UV reflective, they point their rear to the sun, it is visible from several kilometres.

This display is known as ‘lekking’ and males will often gather at a ‘lek’ to try and impress the females. If interested the females will circle the male and choose their mate on his appearance and his mating display often looking at the whiteness of his rear plumage. Mating is practically the only moment at which a female and a male Great Bustard seem to be interested in each other.

Bustards, salisbury Plain, Gin, Downton
Squabble during the courting season, Salisbury Plain
great Bustard, Wiltshire, ci=ourting, lekking
Male in full display on Salisbury Plain
Great Bustard (Otis tarda) males displaying on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire
Lek of Great Bustards, Salisbury Plain


The female plumage is more cryptic (camouflaged) than the male's, which serves them well, as it is the hen that incubate the eggs on the nest, which are scrapes in the ground. As breeding occurs in early spring, sitting females are easily seen by predators, both avian and mammalian, resulting in lost eggs and chicks. Natural mortality for these birds in the wild, is more than 80% in their first year. Those that survive their first year typically live on for between 15 and 20 more. 

The Great Bustard Conservation Group will rescue any abandoned nests and then hand rear chicks, before releasing them back into the wild.

Incubation takes 26 days, and the chicks are highly active. Being nidifugous, they can leave the nest site after 1 day. The female will then lead them away from the nest, feeding them on a diet of insects and grubs. Young great bustards begin developing their adult plumage at about 2 months and begin to develop their flying skills at the same time. The bond between great bustard mothers and their chicks is very strong and usually remains in place until the mating season the following spring.

Hatchling with mum on Salisbury Plain
Hatchling with mum on Salisbury Plain
Bustard Chicks
Hand reared chicks with the Conservation Group
Female Bustard on Salisbury Plain
Small Seperator, Downton Distillery, Wiltshire


'The tireless work of one man with a dream.'


In 1998 David Waters created the Great Bustard Conservation Group whose objective was to bring back the Great Bustard to its old breeding grounds on Salisbury Plain. It has not been an easy journey for him, but with an amazing team and generous benefactors many of the hurdles and obstacles have been overcome. The first release occurred in 2004.  To date there are now over 50 Bustards, with the population now established and crucially beginning to breed self-sufficiently. They hope that in 2024 the population will grow to 75.

Naturally birds do get injured, these are collected and nursed back to health. Pending on the injuries the majority will be released back into the wild. Those with serious injuries and unable to fly will find new homes, where they can flourish under supervision. One such place is the Watatunga Wildlife Reserve who have planted 3 hectares of lucerne, vetch, sainfoin and clover as a natural food source.

The journey does not stop here, they have a clear plan that they wish to implement. For this to really become a success story, where globally the populations are in decline, they need to provide more safe nesting areas, not just on Salisbury Plain. This can only be done by working alongside the farming community, renting or even buying land.

They also need the UK’s statutory agencies support, to ensure the Great Bustard receives the recognition and protection it deserves. This can only happen through public support, more importantly your support.

Spring is in the air
David waters, great bustard, conservation
Releasing back into the wild
Drove of Bustards, Wiltshire, Salisbury, Downton
Social gathering on Salisbury Plain
Winter on Salisbury Plain
Winter on Salisbury Plain
Small Seperator, Downton Distillery, Wiltshire


'Red clover is a type of legume like lentils and beans and part of the Bustards diet.'


Base: Grain Spirit

Botanicals: Yarrow, Lucerne, Red Clover and Wild Rocket

Available: Local shops and online

Refills: Appearing in April / May

Great Bustard Gin was created in partnership with David and the Great Bustard Conservation Group. We worked our way through a list of botanicals that Great Bustards enjoy, though no insects were experimented with! We created a base recipe which was then built on to provide the layers and depth. At the same time, we wanted to ensure it was enjoyed by everyone and therefore some ingredients were sidelined, looking at you fennel and anise. The result is a light, warming spirit that has sweetness from the clover and pepper notes from the rocket.

The design was created by Rob Bartlet. The triangular design reflects that Bustards have tridactyl feet. They have only three toes, which all face forward and lack an opposable hind toe (hallux). This means they can run very fast, but cannot perch on anything, so they are a ground-dwelling bird (Clever Rob).

In buying a bottle of Great Bustard Gin, you are supporting the charity and helping them achieve their goals. By providing a donation to them, then enjoying your gin and tonic with friends, thus spreading the word.

Should you see us at an event, you might meet one of the conservation team who have made this inspirational story come to life.


Small Seperator, Downton Distillery, Wiltshire


Small Seperator, Downton Distillery, Wiltshire