Great Bustards in Stanhoe

The Great Bustard was once one of Britain’s most spectacular birds, and may become so again following its recent reintroduction on Salisbury Plain.

One of the earliest historical references to the Great Bustard, from 1530, relates to Stanhoe.

Great Bustard colour plate

Great bustards, which have a wingspan of up to eight
feet (2.5 m), were found in Norfolk until the 19th century.
Adult males weigh up to 35 pounds (16 kg), making the
Great Bustard probably the world’s heaviest flying bird.

The extract below is from a Victorian book called Birds of Norfolk, with Remarks on their Habits, Migration, and Local Distribution (1866), by Henry Stevenson. Volume II, which devotes nearly 50 pages to the Great Bustard, was published in 1870. The complete book is available from the Internet Archive as a facsimile PDF (25 MB) and in several e-book formats.

“Of our local records the earliest in point of date* are contained in the published extracts from the Household Books of the L’Estrange’s, of Hunstanton, where, in the “Privy Purse Accounts”, for the year 1527, we find the following entry :–

The xljst weke [41st week].
Wedynsday. Itm viij malards, a bustard,
and j hernsewe [1 harnser, or heron]
kylled wt ye crosbowe.

And, again, in the year 1530, amongst the list of gratuities–

Itm in reward the xxvth day of July
to Baxter’s svnt of Stannewgh [Stanhoe]
for bryngyng of ij [2] youg busterds,
ijd [two pence].

* There is apparently but one earlier notice of the great bustard in Britain, viz., in the works of the celebrated Scotch historian, Hector Boethius, published in the year 1526, whose remarks on this species are referred to by Willoughby. The entries in the Northumberland Household Book, which commenced in 1512, and in which bustards are mentioned, are also nearly contemporary with the Hunstanton records.”

The Great Bustard was extinct in Britain by Stevenson’s time. In his preface he writes:

“There are but few individuals now living who remember the Great Bustard in Norfolk and Suffolk even in its latter days, and fewer still are the octogenarians who can recall the appearance of this noble species when still existing in ‘droves’ in the Thetford or Swaffham tracts.”