The final frontier (where no crane has gone before)

Crane Slimbridge

Silhouetted against the rolling plains of the Somerset Levels is a peculiar beast. A metre tall, with legs as long as Claudia Schiffer and a courting display that rivals any young male adolescent in its intensity (and hopefulness), the Common Crane presents a rather magnificent sight for today’s West Country walker.

However it has not always been this way. Up until thirty years ago, cranes had not been seen in the British countryside for 400 years, with the last known breeding bird vanishing from the wild at the start of the 17th century. Once widespread across the wetlands of Britain and Ireland, this pre-historic relic is thought to have fallen victim to over-hunting and habitat drainage, leaving behind only place names such as Cranbrook, Cranfield and Cranleigh, as reminders of a forgotten era.

But the tides are turning for crane species in Britain thanks to an ambitious conservation venture known as the ‘Great Crane Project’ (GCP). Established in 2006, the aim of the GCP is to re-establish viable populations of Common or Eurasian Cranes (Grus grus) to the Somerset Levels and Moors. In practice, this means breeding between 70-100 birds or 20+ breeding pairs by 2025 (a task which is actually far more difficult than it sounds). The hope is that ‘Somersetonian’ individuals will add to the rather feeble population of cranes on the Norfolk Broads (which established in 1979) and assist recolonisation of former UK haunts.

So far, the reintroduction programme has been remarkably successful, spanning continents, facilitating collaboration at both a national and international level*, and allowing fully grown men to dress up as giant birds. The crane eggs were originally shipped in all the way from Germany (which already boasts a very healthy population of cranes in Schorfheide-Chorin biosphere reserve, near Berlin), and then were subsequently rehoused in the sleepy town of Slimbridge in Gloustershire. It is here that the fun really started, with hatchlings being subjected to an intensive version of ‘crane school’. Lessons themselves, which comprised foraging and exercise, were taught by human professors adorned in grey hooded overalls so that the birds would not become too accustomed to humans (not a far cry from Oxbridge then!) Students that achieved high marks were rewarded with release into their new life in the wild.

Over the past five years more than a hundred chicks have graduated from crane school, representing five separate classes of crane chicks. However, earlier this month Slimbridge waved a tearful goodbye to their final flock of pupils, and the GCP entered a new and exciting stage in which cranes are encouraged to breed and raise youngsters themselves. Breeding itself has proven a little rocky so far (whilst male cranes have certainly proven themselves capable of ‘doing the business’, incubated eggs have tended to be taken by predators and young chicks have been lost within the first 28 days of hatching). However, we all live and learn, and conservationists are hopeful that breeding attempts will prove more successful next year.

The crane reintroduction project actually forms part of a larger-scale series of ventures which aim to restore species back to their former habitat in the UK. Although controversial, I for one believe that successful recolonisation will not only be a positive step for crane populations in the UK, but also a symbol of success for conservation nationally. Fingers crossed this iconic species can pull it out of the bag.

*The project is actually a joint venture between the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the RSPB, and the Pensthorpe Trust, but relies heavily on a rather generous injection of funds from Viridor Credits Envioronmental Company.

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Louisa Wood

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