DAVID ARNOLD - The shepherd’s wild turkey

The Great Bustard was once common in Sussex but disappeared from our county around 125 years ago after being remorselessly hunted.
The Great Bustard was once common in Sussex but disappeared from our county around 125 years ago after being remorselessly hunted.

The Great Bustard has a claim to being the biggest wild bird ever to have lived in Sussex or, for that matter, in England.

An adult Great Bustard can have a wingspan of some six feet and weigh as much as 40lbs.

They were once quite common on the South Downs. Unfortunately, they were too tempting a target for hunters who went after them with guns and specially trained greyhounds.

Perhaps they also made good eating which might explain the name they were known by in Sussex: Shepherd’s Wild Turkey.

There is an intriguing single line reference made by noted naturalist Gilbert White in 1770 to the effect that “some bustards are bred in the parish of Findon”.

Whether they were captive birds or a semi-wild flock is not known.

William Borrer (born 1814) of Henfield was another ornithologist with an interest in bustards. He learnt about the big birds with long legs from his grandfather who had often hunted them with his greyhounds.

His favourite ploy was to go out early on a misty morning to find little groups of them feeding on wet turnips.

Borrer wrote that his grandfather might take half a dozen in a morning, commonly young birds because the older and bigger ones could put up quite a fight and easily injure the dogs.

Borrer added: “They were most numerous on a part of the Downs between Devil’s Dyke and Thunders Barrow.”

Around 1830 there appears to have been a single example occasionally seen near Blatchington by a Mr Catt who farmed there. One was spotted on the hillsides above Brighton just prior to Christmas 1875 but most likely it was the same bird that was reported shot near Ripe on 12th January 1876.

On 6th January 1891, one of the birds fell victim to a shotgun at Pett Level near Rye and this single Great Bustard appears to be the last of them ever to visit Sussex. Can’t really blame them for staying away!

The Great Bustard’s smaller cousin, the Little Bustard, is occasionally sighted. Up to 30,000 of the bigger birds live in Spain and in recent years some Great Bustards have been re-introduced on Salisbury Plain where hopefully a viable breeding population can be established.