Elegant common cranes are returning to Britain’s wetlands in their largest numbers in four hundred years. The latest common crane survey recorded 48 pairs across the UK. It is estimated that there are currently around 160 wild cranes distributed across the length and breadth of Britain. Over the last five years, an impressive 60 chicks have been raised by wild cranes in Britain.
On a cold, wintry day, there are few things that match seeing a flight of cranes coming to rest in a frosty marsh, bugling their curious call. Common cranes are among Europe’s most charismatic birds. Standing up to four feet tall, with a wingspan of 7 feet, they are found from Scandinavia to China. Cranes used to be found on the tables of Tudor banquets, but a mixture of hunting pressure and the loss of wetland habitat led to their extinction in the UK some four hundred years ago.
In 1978, conservationists were delighted when a small population re-established itself in the Norfolk Broads. Sensitive management of wetland nature reserves like Hickling Broad provided the perfect habitat for those pioneers, and the cranes have been in East Anglia ever since. They’ve even gotten as far as Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk.
East Anglia is not the only place where cranes are re-establishing themselves. In the last few years breeding cranes have been recorded in Yorkshire and north east Scotland. Environmental groups have been keeping a very close eye on new breeding sites to ensure that the birds are not disturbed.
Meanwhile, conservationists are taking a more hands-on approach in the South West. The Great Crane Project, a partnership between the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and RSPB, has been hand rearing and releasing birds into the Somerset Levels, a 60,000 ha floodplain with extensive mixed pastures, meadows and wetlands. This year has been particularly successful for the project. Cranes have bred in the Levels, as well as Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. One pair even crossed over the Bristol channel and bred in the Gwent levels in South Wales. It is the first time that cranes have successfully bred in Wales for well over four hundred years.
Rebecca Lee, WWT Principal Conservation Breeding Officer, said: “It’s a dream come true. We devised the Great Crane Project so that we could kickstart a population of cranes here, in the west, in the hope that it would expand in tandem with those that had already settled in the east, and eventually the two would meet.
“It’s still early days, but it all seems to be happening. Cranes have now bred successfully in England, Scotland and Wales, and we’re not far off 50 breeding pairs, where just a decade ago there were barely a tenth of that. Cranes are well on track to become a true conservation success story for the UK.”
Damon Bridge, RSPB manager of the Great Crane Project, said: “To see them returning in ever increasing numbers to their former homes after all this time is an amazing spectacle that many more people will be able to enjoy and a true reflection of how important our wetland habitat is to cranes and many other species.”
Significant conservation work has gone into the Somerset Levels in recent years. The Avalon Marshes Project has brought together conservation bodies including Natural England, RSPB and Somerset Wildlife Trust to conserve and enhance a large area of nearly continuous wetland west of Glastonbury. It is now one of the finest wetlands in the country. It is home to more bitterns than anywhere else in Britain, and boasts a thriving population of rare birds including great white egrets and hobbies. The partnership between landowners, farmers, conservationists and residents the length and breadth of the Levels is highlighting the benefits of landscape scale conservation.
While cranes are taking flight across Britain, this success has been marred by an illegal shooting incident in Somerset in October. The bird ‘Swampy’, described as the “best breeding female” in the Great Crane Project, was found in a field near Ilchester by a farmer. The reward for information leading to a successful conviction has been raised to £2,000.
With cranes now taking flight across the country, there has never been a better time to try and find them in Britain. With wildlife declining across the world, it is truly wonderful to be able to see these charismatic creatures returning to our shores. The resurgence of the crane is testament to the hard work of environmentalists, and the ability of the natural world, when it is given half a chance, to heal itself.
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