After centuries of absence, these spectacular birds have firmly returned to England, a remarkable conservation success, says David Tomlinson
Cranes have returned to England, despite centuries of decline. David Tomlinson looks at this remarkable conservation success.
For more on inspiring conservation projects and the unsung heroes behind them, read Conservation heroes: The Field’s guide to inspiring conservation projects.
Few sounds in nature are more exciting and uplifting than the bugling of cranes. Whether it’s the duet of a dancing pair or the crashing orchestra of thousands on migration, it’s a wonderfully evocative call of the wild. For centuries, it has been lost from the British countryside but, at long last, Grus grus, the common crane, is back and it is something to celebrate.
Rewilding and reintroductions may be the conservationist’s favourite buzzwords currently but, occasionally, birds take us by surprise and re-establish themselves here naturally. Two species did this in the 20th century. The first was the osprey, which started breeding again in Scotland in 1954 after an absence of nearly half a century. Much more surprising was the return of the crane: the pair that bred successfully in the Norfolk Broads in 1981 was the first to do so for several centuries.
The birds survived in the East Anglian fens until the time of the Tudors and must have once been considerably more widespread, for more than 250 British place names refer to them. Northern populations are migratory, so it’s probable that flocks of Scandinavian cranes once migrated through these islands en route to their wintering areas in southern Europe, with some possibly overwintering here.
What we do know is that they were plentiful enough to provide the centrepiece for many a medieval banquet. Henry II was said to have dined on crane (along with swan and peacock). Henry III shared his predecessor’s taste for the bird and his Christmas dinner menu in 1251 included 125 of them. Not surprisingly, the population was unable to withstand such pressure and this, together with habitat loss, contributed to the crane’s extinction in England.
Cranes certainly weren’t overlooked during those centuries of absence: at five feet tall with a six-foot wingspan, they are too big to pass unnoticed. They are also loud and noisy, their calls audible more than a mile away. These contact calls are essential, for adults form strong pair bonds, staying together not only throughout the year but for their entire lives, which may be as long as 30 years.
Despite their size, the Norfolk cranes were not easy to see, for they were shy and wary, and spent much of their time on private land well away from public roads and footpaths, unlike the celebrated Scottish ospreys, which could be viewed reliably from a dedicated hide. A friend who lived not far from the cranes’ favoured broad took me to see them in January 1982. The view through his telescope was distant but memorable and inspired a lifelong fascination for these birds. A month later, I drove to the Champagne district of France to look for more. Rumour had it that a small number of cranes was wintering around Lake du Der-Chantecoq; I was thrilled to find 70.
In subsequent years, I followed cranes to their wintering grounds in the cork oak forests of Extremadura, Spain, where flocks of thousands compete for the acorns with the famous black pigs. I watched them on their breeding grounds in the forests of Sweden, Finland and even Siberia, and encountered great autumn gatherings at Matsalu Bay in Estonia.
Encouragingly, I now see far more cranes in my travels than was once the case; after centuries of decline, Europe’s cranes are enjoying a resurgence. In 1985, their population was estimated at around 45,000. Since then, it has been expanding at a rate of between 5% and 8% a year, so has increased to some 400,000 birds. This remarkable upsurge is linked to a number of factors, ranging from protection from hunting to changing agricultural practices (cranes like maize) and milder winters. At Lake du Der-Chantecoq, where I was excited to see that small flock nearly 40 years ago, no fewer than 268,120 were counted in one day in November 2019.
Back in England, the crane’s re-establishment has been slow. Cranes aren’t sexually mature until they are at least three years old, while their reproduction rate is slow, laying a clutch of two eggs that take 30 days to incubate. The young birds leave the nest as soon as they have hatched but it’s another 70 days before they can fly. Predation by foxes is a constant threat to the youngsters, despite the fact that the parents will chase off such predators.
By the turn of the past century, Britain had just four breeding pairs; the overall population, including non-breeding individuals, was somewhat higher. The birds that resided in Norfolk made regular forays outside the county, wandering as far as Kent and Yorkshire. Such travels suggested that a pair might eventually nest elsewhere and, in 2001, one pair lingered in South Yorkshire, where they subsequently bred, while in 2007 nesting took place at the RSPB’s Lakenheath reserve in Suffolk. Since then, this reserve has hosted one or two breeding pairs every year, though fox predation of the chicks remains a problem.
THE GREAT CRANE PROJECT
Despite this modest expansion, the future of the crane in the UK was hardly secure. In 2005, Andy Brown and Phil Grice wrote in Birds in England that the population ‘remains perilously small and vulnerable’, which it probably would still be, if it wasn’t for the Great Crane Project, a partnership between the RSPB, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust. The aim of the project was to give our small population a major boost by introducing captive-reared birds to the wetlands of the Somerset Levels.
In 2010, the project imported 21 crane eggs, collected from specially selected nests in the Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere Reserve near Brandenburg, close to Germany’s Polish border. The eggs were placed in incubators and driven to WWT Slimbridge, a 18-hour non-stop journey by road. Rearing cranes is labour intensive, as hatchlings initially depend on their parents for food. Humans dressed as cranes took the role of the parents; the crane costumes ensure that the chicks did not become imprinted on their foster parents.
Young cranes are aggressive to their siblings and in the wild it’s normal for each parent to look after a chick. In captivity, the young birds have to be reared individually before being slowly introduced to one another as they mature. Aversion training is also included in the rearing programme, ensuring that young birds become wary of humans and predators, such as foxes.
At between 10 and 16 weeks, the class of 2010 was moved to predator-proof release pens on the Somerset Levels. They were still accompanied for much of the time by their human minders, while the alarm calls of adult cranes were played to alert them to the dangers of vehicles, humans, dogs and foxes. In the wild, the parents accompany their chicks throughout their first winter, so such care helped prepare the birds for life in the wild.
By late autumn, the young birds were venturing out onto the Levels, discovering new feeding areas. They were helped by wooden decoys that drew them to safe areas. By December, they had reached full size and were big enough to fend off foxes. Though still monitored carefully, they were now behaving and living as true wild birds.
The programme was repeated for the following four years. The project’s initial aim was to introduce 100 young birds: 93 were eventually released. The shortfall in numbers was made up by higher survival rates of the released birds than had been anticipated. Though no more releases have taken place since 2014, the project continues to monitor the released birds. As cranes do not nest until they are at least three years old, it was accepted that it would be a time before the first wild-hatched chicks fledged.
Unsuccessful breeding attempts were made in 2013 and 2014. The first success was in 2015, when 16 pairs attempted to breed, with four pairs hatching young and three pairs fledging chicks. Though most of the nesting attempts were on the Levels, there were also pairs in South Wales, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and East Somerset.
Breeding success comes with maturity, so as the birds age more chicks are expected to fledge each year. Last spring, 56 pairs were counted in the UK (26 of which were in the West Country), a new record count. The common crane really is back, a major triumph for bird conservation in this country.
WHERE TO SEE CRANES
Cranes are spectacular birds: it’s worth going to see them to discover just why so much effort has been made to re-establish them here. During the breeding season, they are elusive. For example, at the Lakenheath reserve, in Suffolk, the birds nest in the reedbeds, where they are invisible from the reserves’ hides and footpaths. You will probably hear them, but you do have to be lucky to see them. Autumn and winter visits are more likely to be successful.
In eastern England, the most reliable crane-watching site is the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad reserve. From November to February, birds can be seen from the raptor-roost viewpoint, Stubb Hill, as they flight to their roost. During the summer, they can be spotted regularly in the Hickling, Horsey and Martham areas of the Norfolk Broads.
In Somerset, Fivehead Ridge overlooks West Sedgemoor and offers a good chance of sightings, and a walk along the River Parrett, between Oath and Stathe, is likely to be rewarding. WWT Slimbridge, in Gloucestershire, is also a dependable site throughout the year, with cranes often visible from the hides.
To see large numbers of cranes, however, you have to travel to the Continent. In northern Spain, Gallocanta Lake in Aragon, south of Zaragoza, hosts up to 40,000 birds during peak migration – late February and early March, and late November. Closer to home is Lake du Der-Chantecoq, near Troyes, in France. Thousands of cranes now winter in the area, but the biggest numbers occur on migration, with early March and early November the peak periods.
Most of the birds that pass through Champagne are heading to or from their breeding grounds in Scandinavia. Many thousands gather at Lake Hornborga in Västergötland, southern Sweden. The first birds arrive in the second week of March and peak in mid April, when counts have reached in excess of 27,000. These cranes are most active, with much dancing and displaying, and have become a major tourist attraction.