Crane Spotting – the UK’s tallest breeding bird comes bouncing back.

More than 400 years ago the elegant common crane was lost from the UK’s wetlands, probably due to a mixture of hunting and overexploitation, the last evidence of breeding cranes in England was in 1542. Now the UK population has hit a record-breaking high of more than 250 cranes and once again this striking bird is gracing the UK’s wetlands.

So how how did this amazing comeback happen? It started with the arrival of a small number of wild cranes turning up in the Norfolk Broads and this was followed by the first breeding attempt in 1981. This gave conservationists and the RSPB a hope that these wild cranes might be able to re-establish a small but viable breeding population in Norfolk.

However, during the first two decades this recolonization proceeded very slowly with a UK population standing at just 5 pairs in 2000. So, in 2010 the Great Crane Project was formed. This was a partnership between the RSPB, WWT and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust. This was an ambitious 5 year project with an aim of creating a crane stronghold on the Somerset Levels & Moors.

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This intensive work involved the hatching of eggs and hand-rearing young crane chicks with a planned release into suitable habitat on the Somerset Levels. In total 94 chicks were successfully released and the first successful breeding from these birds took place in 2015. Since then the population on the Levels has steadily increased and there are now signs that these birds are starting to spread into other suitable habitats.

The huge conservation effort to restore and protect UK wetlands has had a key role in turning around the crane’s fortunes. Over 80% of the breeding crane populations are now found on protected sites, with over a third on RSPB nature reserves. These wetland areas also provide habitat and refuge for countless other native and migrating species. Wetlands areas are capable of storing vast quantities of carbon and are invaluable in helping to combat and lessen the effects of climate change.

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So, the news is that the UK’s population of cranes is now at its highest level since the species returned to the UK in 1979. In 2023 a breeding survey recorded at least 80 pairs of cranes, with 69 pairs attempting to breed and a total of 36 chicks successfully fledged. It’s an amazing turn-around for these 1.2m tall birds with the UK population now in excess of 250.

The Great Crane Project reintroduction scheme has demonstrated how wildlife can be brought back when the right conditions are created for it to thrive.

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In the past few years cranes have bred successfully at RSPB Otmoor.

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Report by Colin Strudwick.