Cranes – a wetland success

This content is sponsored by RSPB

This content is sponsored by RSPB

All too often in nature conservation, stories are full of doom and gloom; highlighting species in steep decline. However, there are many great achievements to celebrate such as this real conservation success story; the return of common cranes to the UK.

Following the natural recolonisation of a few birds in 1979 and extensive conservation work, including a reintroduction programme, they are making a return after a 400-year absence. 2020 was a record year, with a total of 64 pairs present; of which, up to 56 attempted to breed and fledged 23 young.

chick - cranes
Common crane chick © Damon Bridges

Cranes probably became extinct as a breeding species in the UK during the 16th century. Before this they often featured on the menus of medieval feasts or as quarry species; for example, a banquet to celebrate George Neville’s enthronement as Archbishop of York in September 1465 supposedly included 204 cranes.

Cranes represented ‘the noblest quarry’ at which ‘the falconer could fly his Hawks’. In December 1212, King John flew his gyrfalcons at cranes so successfully that, at Ashwell, in Cambridgeshire, he killed seven, and on another even more successful occasion in Lincolnshire in February 1213 he brought down nine’. Clearly cranes were formerly quite common in certain areas.

The return of Cranes

Cranes recolonised Norfolk Broads in 1979, with the first breeding attempt in 1981. Their recovery has taken several decades, and progress was slow to begin with. The population stood at just five pairs in 2000, but thanks to the efforts of many dedicated individuals, the UK Crane Working Group (an official umbrella organisation for conservation bodies, land managers and other private individuals concerned with crane conservation), an increase in breeding success, the Great Crane Project (a reintroduction scheme to the Somerset Levels) and immigration from continental Europe, their numbers have increased over ten-fold since then.

The Great Crane Project reintroduced birds to the Somerset Levels which has boosted the UK population and improved their prospects nationally. These birds, each individually colour ringed, now make up roughly 50% of our crane population © Nick Upton (rspb-images.com)

Cranes have now spread away from the Norfolk Broads to occupy other areas. Breeding cranes recolonised Yorkshire in 2001, and the East Anglian Fens at our Lakenheath reserve in 2007, Scotland in 2012 and Wales in 2016. Cranes can be incredibly productive. Over 210 young have now successfully fledged since recolonisation, with over half of these in the last five years alone. The UK population is now considered self-sustaining with high survival rates.

The role of protected areas and nature reserves

Since the start, the availability of large protected wetlands has been a vital component for their recovery. Over 80% of the breeding population is currently found on protected sites (SSSI’s, SPA’s) and nature reserves. These protected sites offer the solitude, habitats and the sympathetic management required, as cranes can be very sensitive to human disturbance, particularly while setting up territory and during the breeding season.

The RSPB has played a key role in their recovery. Along with WWT, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, and funded by Viridor Credits Environmental Company, we were partners in the Great Crane Project which released 93 captive reared birds between 2010 and 2014 to our West Sedgemoor reserve on the Somerset Levels. These birds have now started to breed.

Lakenheath - cranes
The RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen nature reserve, is a great example of wetland creation. Originally designed to be optimal for bitterns (it supported 11 booming bitterns when last fully surveyed in 2019), cranes have also bred there annually since 2007 © Mike Page (rspb-images.com)

Over a third of the UK breeding population, made up of a roughly 50:50 split between released birds and those of wild origin, are found on RSPB reserves alone. In 2020, there were 23 pairs found across nine sites. A pair of cranes nested on an RSPB nature reserve on the Suffolk coast for the first time and a pair held territory at RSPB Loch of Strathbeg. Suitable habitat conditions are also being created elsewhere. Fingers crossed cranes will colonise other reserves soon.

The future for cranes in the UK currently looks positive and their population is predicted to continue to expand. Last autumn saw a large numbers of cranes roosting on RSPB Nene Washes, with the peak of 78 being the highest modern-day count in Britain, other than a flock of about 100 birds on migration in Sussex in October 1963.

UK Crane population increase and productivity between 1980 and 2020

There are few more spectacular and charismatic species than the common crane. Luckily, after the species’ absence, more people will get the opportunity to watch and listen to the amazing birds distinctive dancing and echoing bugling courtship.

If we want to see this amazing success repeated for other species and more done to halt and reverse the decline of the UK’s wildlife then we must have an legislation in place, such as England’s Environment Bill, that is fit for purpose and sets legally binding targets to revive our world over the next decade.

Did you know?

Around a third of RSPB income is from people like you who choose to leave a gift in their Will. By pledging a gift in your Will, you will help to secure a future for nature, and leave a lasting legacy for future generations. We can’t imagine a world without skylarks, puffins, red squirrels and hedgehogs, which is why we work hard to protect our wonderful wildlife and the places it lives.

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A gift in your Will is one of the most powerful ways you can help create a future filled with nature. Download our Gifts in Wills guide to find out how nature could benefit from your legacy.

If you enjoyed Cranes – a wetland success, you’ll find more content like it at RSPB – Gifts in Wills.

This content is sponsored by RSPB

Tags: Last modified: December 2, 2021

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