More than two dozen rare black-tailed godwits have been released into the wild in the Fens after being hand-reared to give the species a boost, conservationists said.
The 25 young birds were released into their new home in the Cambridgeshire Fens by wildlife experts from the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) as part of Project Godwit to increase numbers of the birds in the UK.
Eggs were taken from nests and hatched in incubators at WWT Welney Wetland Centre before staff hand-reared the young birds away from dangers such as predators and flooding until they were old enough to look after themselves.
It is the first time the process known as “headstarting” has been used in the UK, and gives the chicks a better chance of survival.
Removing eggs from the nests early has also meant the parents lay a second clutch, giving the parent birds a chance to raise a brood of their own.
It is part of efforts to secure the future of the species in the UK, where fewer than 60 pairs nest, almost all of them found in the Fens.
Internationally, experts warn the species could be at risk of extinction in the near future.
The hand-reared birds are expected to meet up with other black-tailed godwits hatched in the area this summer, and spend several weeks feeding in the wetlands before migrating to Spain, Portugal and West Africa.
The conservationists will be tracking their progress via telescopes and radio tags.
The WWT’s Nicola Hiscock, who oversaw the hand-rearing, said all the godwits had now taken their first flights and started to explore.
“The biggest worry for us is that they’d fly off somewhere unsuitable for them, but we have observed several birds in the wetlands here at WWT Welney, which is their ideal habitat.
“Over the next few weeks we’ll keep a daily check on them, just to make sure that they’re doing okay.
“But then they’ll be off on migration and we probably won’t see them again until they return to breed in two years’ time.”
The RSPB’s Hannah Ward said: “We’re delighted with how well this first year has gone. This is essentially still the pilot year and we hope to continue to headstart godwit chicks each summer for the next four years.
“The Fens has far and away the biggest number of black-tailed godwit nests in the UK, but in recent years they have really struggled to hatch and raise their chicks in safety.”
The project focuses on two wetlands in the east of England - the Ouse and Nene Washes - and aims to boost the number of young birds entering the population each year.
The conservationists said they are also testing different ways to help the birds breed, and studying the population to better understand the threats they face.