Guest blog by Kirsten Barr, Volunteer for the Living Levels Partnership

The common crane (grus grus), is a large, long-necked, elegant bird. They require quiet, secluded wetland areas to breed. Despite the name, in Britain the common crane is fairly rare, due to historic over-hunting, drainage of the wetlands and the destruction of their habitat. It is no-longer considered a breeder in Britain, though a small population does breed in East Anglia each summer. Cranes were once common in Wales, with evidence indicating they were present 7,600 years ago.

Above: 18 month old common / Eurasian crane grus grus, "Vince", released by the Great Crane Project onto the Somerset Levels and Moors, stands alert alongside 2 other flock members foraging in Barley stubble, Somerset, UK, October 2011. Image by Nick Upton (

The first evidence we have of common crane on the Gwent Levels is through the presence of preserved footprints. The Mesolithic occurred in Britain around 10,000-5,500 years ago. Water levels were lower than they are today due to much of the oceans waters still being held in glaciers. This means that the land surface that these prehistoric individuals walked on is now covered with a vast amount of water and sediment from the Severn Estuary, and is only visible at the very lowest tides (>1m), though this waterlogged environment provides excellent conditions for preservation. Goldcliff East, Newport, is a site on the estuary that is rich in preserved prehistoric artefacts and footprints, with those made by humans, mammals and birds still visible in certain areas. By far the most abundant of the Mesolithic bird footprints found at Goldcliff East are those made by crane, with at least 50 footprints so far identified as this species, these prints were made c.5,600 cal BC (Scales 2007). Crane footprints have only been discovered on fine summer sediments, indicating that the crane used this area primarily during the summer, possibly for breeding (Dark and Allen 2005). This is some of the earliest evidence of crane in the whole of Britain, and certainly the oldest evidence of common crane in Wales.

Above: Mesolithic crane footprints at Goldcliff East, c.5,600 BC. Image by Kirsten Barr

It is thought that the numbers of crane dropped dramatically due to overhunting once the Romans came to the Gwent Levels (approx. 75-300 AD). Remains of crane have been found at the Roman fortress of Caerleon, Newport, with cut marks on the bones suggesting that these birds were being eaten (Hamilton-Dyer 1993). 

By the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-1547) crane were rare in Britain (Rackham 1986). sightings were mainly recorded in East Anglia, and it is likely that they were almost completely extinct in Wales. It may be that the Romans were primarily responsible for this extinction due to over-hunting and the huge impact they had on the wetlands, drainage and land reclamation.  

Thanks to the Great Crane Project, common crane have been reintroduced onto the Somerset Levels.  As of August 2016, a breeding pair successfully raised a fully fledged chick on the Gwent Levels, following in the footsteps of their ancestors who exploited this area 7,600 years ago. If we protect the Gwent Levels so that it may remain a quiet, secluded, wetland rich environment then common crane will hopefully return yearly to breed in Wales, where they belong.

For more information about the Living Levels Partnership, please email