Rare birds which were hand-reared at a Norfolk reserve have "beaten the odds" to return home for the summer.

Conservationists at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) in Welney feared the black-tailed godwits would not survive after eggs were found encased in mud last year.

Now 18 birds, ringed and released in 2017 and 2018, have successfully returned to nest in the Fens.

A WWT spokeswoman said their return was "a miracle, an incredible story".

There are fewer than 50 pairs of godwits breeding in the UK, and in recent years they have struggled to hatch and raise their chicks in safety, the charity said.

Experts have been using a technique known as "head-starting" - raising young birds from eggs collected in the wild.

Five of the returning birds were hatched from eggs discovered on flooded farmland in 2018 and resembling "muddy potatoes".

eggs in field

'Muddy potato' eggs found in field Image credit WWT

Two of the godwits were spotted "safe and sound" 1,000 miles (1,609km) away in Portugal in February 2018.

WWT conservation officer Rebecca Lee said "every egg, every godwit, counts towards the survival of the species".

"There was drama last year when heavy spring rains forced some godwits to nest offsite on arable land prompting a rescue mission to free the eggs," she said.

"For those 'muddy potato' eggs, in a dreadful condition, to hatch into healthy birds and complete their migration cycle some 3,000 miles, is the cherry on top of the cake."

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