A CRITICALLY endangered ibis which became extinct in Europe more than 300 years ago has successfully bred at Birdland.

The Bourton-on-the-Water wildlife attraction is looking after no fewer than five Walldrapp, or northern bald ibis, chicks.

The ibis was once common throughout much of Europe the Middle East and northern Africa, with a fossil record dating back at least 1.8 million years.

It disappeared from Europe in the 18th century, and is now considered critically endangered.

“Two of our ibis couples, which pair for life, have successfully hatched their eggs this year which is a first for us,” said head keeper Alistair Keen.

“The birds have bred in the past but this is the first time we have had so many chicks together so we’re extremely pleased and optimistic all five will rear successfully.

“Our waldrapp ibis are part of a European captive breeding programme and the plan will be for the chicks to eventually move to other collections and help protect these incredible birds from extinction,” he added.

Today less than 1,000 birds survive in the wild; 600 in Morocco, 200 in southern Turkey and a small remnant in east Africa.

Growing up to 80cms tall, the northern bald ibis is a large, iridescent black bird with a long, curved beak, bald head and neck and bizarre ruff of feathers.

In Ancient Egypt it was revered, along with the sacred ibis, as a holy bird and a symbol of brilliance and splendour.

In Turkey the species’ annual migration was believed to guide Hajj pilgrims to Mecca and, according to local legend, it was the second bird Noah released from the Ark.

In 1504, a decree by Archbishop Leonhard of Salzburg made the northern bald ibis one of the world's earliest officially protected species and in 1557 it featured in the Bird Book by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner - among Europe’s oldest and most famous illustrated books on native wildlife. .

About 98 percent of the population died out between 1900 and 2002, as a result of hunting, loss of habitat, pesticide poisoning, disturbance, and dam construction.

A number of conservation programmes are now underway, including an ambitious attempt by a German group to reintroduce the species into Europe. They are using a microlight plane to try and re-teach captive-bred birds, released in the northern Alps, to fly south for the winter.