Enormous Dalmatian pelican could return to British skies after 2,000 years under ambitious rewilding plans

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Ambitious plans from the UK’s Wildlife Trusts to restore and rewild the country’s wetlands could see one of the planet’s biggest flying birds, the Dalmatian pelican, return to British skies. 

After establishing strongholds in the marshland deltas of Somerset and East Anglia, the huge birds were eventually hunted to extinction during the Roman occupation, almost 2,000 years ago.

Now, plans led by conservationist Ben Macdonald make the case for the careful reintroduction of these avian giants, which can measure up to six feet in length with wingspans of up to 11.5 feet, rivalling the wingspan of the largest albatross species. 

Macdonald, whose new book “Rebirding” explores the potential benefits of reintroducing lost bird species, wrote in a Twitter thread:

Once upon a time, into the Roman Occupation (43AD) and beyond, the Dalmatian pelican was our largest British bird,  breeding, at least, in the marshland deltas of Somerset & East Anglia. The peat-land fossil record attests firmly to its presence.

“We know, from the fossil record, and cut-marks on UK pelican bones, that our ancestors were not averse to snacking on these vast & meat-rich birds & presumably their chicks.

“The last fossil of Dalmatian pelicans dates to 43AD. One chanced fossil does not, of course, represent the last bird. Fossils are merely a hint of what we once had. That said, Medieval folklore does not recount pelicans, so we do know they vanished early on.

“Given that monks only began draining the Great Fens centuries later, human activity, rather than habitat loss, is the most likely factor to have driven pelicans from our shores.”

However, with many of Britain’s wet and marshlands currently being restored and joined up, Macdonald has suggested that now is the perfect time to begin the process of reintroducing the birds, pointing out similarities between the East Anglian coastline and the Volga region of Southern Russia, where pelican numbers are growing. 

He said: “The aggregate acreage of fish-rich waters – in the Broads, Fens, Norfolk Coast and the Wash – is, in fact, greater, than habitats used by small but growing populations in countries like Montenegro.  We lack areas as large as the Danube, but we have space enough for pelicans.”

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Macdonald likened the shocking depletion of biodiversity in Britain brought about by human activity to the “plundering” of an art gallery.

“Imagine if, each year, over centuries, our art galleries were plundered, the human death rate greatly increased and our societies fell into ruin and emptiness. We wouldn’t accept that for ourselves. In my view, we shouldn’t for our ecosystems & fellow species, either.”

Instead of trying to simply preserve the “scraps” of wildlife we have left, Macdonald has argued we should be asking “what is the maximum amount of wildlife we could return to the land?”:

“Since the Bronze Age, and long before, every generation has been, progressively, robbed of wildlife.  Now, we can only see how depauperate Britain has become by visiting areas of the world where such acts of robbery have yet to take place.

Having taken this wildlife out of our ecosystems, Macdonald said it’s up to us, “as the species in charge of the Anthropocene, to put [it] back.”

Other projects to reintroduce missing bird species to Britain have been hugely successful. In August 2019, a group of White-tailed eagles from Norway was released in Scotland, and there are now believed to be more than 130 breeding pairs in the country. Another project is now underway to reintroduce the eagles to the Isle of Wight over a 5-year period. 

Elsewhere, Ospreys were the subject of a successful south-coast reintroduction project in 2017, and earlier this year, the first wild storks hatched at West Sussex’s Knepp Estate, a once-working farm that has gradually been converted into a pioneering rewilding site. 

Off the back of such successes, it is reasonable to hope that the Dalmatian pelicans might be the next bird to be given the chance to once again soar effortlessly over Britain.  


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