The great bustard Otis tarda became extinct in the UK during the 19th century due to a combination of factors, including hunting, egg collection and changes in agriculture. In 2003 a 10-year licence was granted to begin a trial to reintroduce the species back to the UK. Here we report on the first 5 years of the trial and assess the progress made towards establishing a founder population. From April 2004 to September 2009 a total of 102 great bustard chicks were imported from Russia and 86 released on Salisbury Plain. Monitoring showed that post-release survival was 18% in the first year following release, and that mortality of released bustards was mainly attributable to predation and collisions. Estimated adult survival was 74%, although the sample size was small. All known surviving great bustards are faithful to the surroundings of the release site, returning throughout the year. A lek has been established where males have been observed displaying to females. The first nesting attempt was in 2007, and in 2009 two females aged 3 and 4 years successfully nested, fledging one chick each. Models incorporating the new demographic estimates suggest that at the end of the 10-year trial period the project can expect to have 8–26 adults as a founder population.