You may recognise Ajay Tegala from your TV screen, where he’s a wildlife presenter for programmes such as BBC Springwatch. When he’s not in the limelight, he’s delivering vital conservation work. Living and working in the Fens has allowed Ajay to develop a real love for the crane, a species that has seen a record breaking year in 2021. Ajay tells us more about the crane’s captivating recovery and his hopes for the future of the species in the Fens and beyond…

Standing over a metre tall, the common crane is England’s tallest breeding bird. Its prehistoric-sounding “bugling” call and powerful wings - spanning well over two metres - make it one of our most majestic birds. Seen up close, they have black heads and necks with a striking white stripe extending from beneath each eye and a patch of bright red on the top of their heads.

My first views of cranes were in flight, their wings slowly beating and their legs trailing behind. It is their elegant flight coupled with those magnificent calls, carrying across the landscape, that I love best about them. They look huge and impressive. They sound loud and confident. But they were extinct in Britain for a large period of history: between the late sixteenth and twentieth centuries.

Ajay Tegala. Photo credit: Harry Mitchell

Like many of our wetland birds, they suffered from loss of habitat as a consequence of drainage as well as being hunted by man. Cranes have specific nesting requirements, favouring undisturbed sedge, rush or reedbeds with standing water to provide protection from mammalian predators. They build nests in water on the general level of the ground. Considering they are our tallest bird, they are incredibly inconspicuous during the breeding season, as their breeding success depends on it.

The early twentieth century saw an increasing appreciation for natural beauty and an important realisation of the need for conservation. England’s few remaining wetlands received protection and habitat restoration efforts later led to their expansion. Fortunately, the common crane remained widespread in mainland Europe with individuals occasionally migrating to England, as was the case in the Norfolk Broads in 1979, with the first British crane chick in centuries hatching there in the early eighties (just a couple of miles from my in-laws’ farm, in fact). As a result, a Norfolk breeding crane population began to grow slowly. Meanwhile, European migratory birds continued to arrive across the country, including birds from Finland and Russia. Some of these cranes bred in Suffolk at the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen in 2007 and followed a similar colonisation to Norfolk, gradually spreading throughout the Fens as the population grew.

The breeding crane population in the Fens has been able to expand and increase thanks to the availability of suitable habitat. Much of this habitat has been created in the last quarter-century. The areas where cranes now breed at Lakenheath Fen were once carrot fields until relatively recently, with the RSPB leading efforts to restore the land there to its former glory. Likewise, at Wicken Fen, where I work as a National Trust Ranger, farmland has been reclaimed and reedbeds are naturally regenerating as part of a hundred-year expansion project.

I was absolutely thrilled when a pair of cranes nested at Wicken Fen in 2019. They have returned each year since, with a second pair also prospecting in 2021. At Wicken, rather than managing reclaimed fenland prescriptively with specific target species in mind, the National Trust focuses on creating the suitable habitats by small-scale artificial flooding in winter and conservation grazing year-round..

Happily, the number of cranes colonising new breeding sites, after centuries of absence, is on the up. They returned to the Lincolnshire Fens in 2020 (just a few miles from where I grew up, never imagining I would see them on my patch) and fledged young in Oxfordshire in 2021 at RSPB Otmoor (for the first time in 500 years). The Lincolnshire pair were probably birds from the fenland population, naturally spreading, whereas the Otmoor pair were part of the Somerset-based Great Crane Project. Attempts to encourage crane-breeding had been ongoing in Oxfordshire for six years before the first fledging success.

Seeing cranes breeding in my local area and spreading across the country gives me a huge buzz. But, if I’m honest, I get equal pleasure from following cranes through the autumn and winter months. I’m lucky to live on the edge of the Ouse Washes just a few miles from WWT Welney. At the end of the summer, the fenland-breeding cranes and their offspring flock together, roosting on the safety of the washes. The day we came to view a potential home in the area, in January 2019, I counted 39 cranes flying overhead. Needless to say, after this incredible sighting, we simply had to live there. That autumn, 44 cranes flew over the garden one morning, heading from the washes out onto local farmland to feed for the day. Feeding and roosting areas change over the course of the winter, occasionally favouring farmland on the the edge of my village. I have watched over fifty birds flying to roost within a mile of my home on several occasions. I usually hear them first, then rush to grab my binoculars or telescope for a good view of these very special creatures.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to witness such a spectacle. It gets quite addictive and I find myself following the cranes around, looking for their feeding and roosting spots to help monitor the population. I am always very careful to keep my distance. Just like in the spring, they don’t like people getting too close. Disturbance causes them to expend energy and deplete their winter fat reserves as well as wasting valuable feeding time to build up these reserves and see them though the harshest time of the year. However, winters being milder has helped them find food in England, reducing the need to migrate over to mainland Europe and thus boosting survival rate.

Changing climate does pose threats to our cranes and other wildlife, however. Increased rainfall leads to higher water levels on the washes. Cranes don’t like roosting in deeper water. When the Ouse Washes get deeper, they head to the Nene Washes. Too much rain during the breeding season can lead to flooding of nests. With the likelihood of greater rainfall in the future, it is so important that more wetland areas are established to help store flood-waters and support the growing crane population.

Nonetheless, it is absolutely wonderful to see them increasing. Indeed, 2021 has been the best year for cranes breeding in Britain with 65 pairs breeding and an impressive 40 young fledging across eleven counties. This is a big jump from the 23 young fledged the year before. In my local Fens, 14 confirmed pairs laid eggs and reared 12 young: 24% of the British population rearing 30% of Britain’s young.

All too often I have heard my beloved Fens knocked for being flat, bleak and boring. But to anyone who says that, I can happily boast cranes in response. A sky filled with dozens of cranes bugling is simply magical and one I hope we will see more and more of. It is my hope that sites like Wicken Fen can go on to support additional pairs and that they continue their expansion across RSPB reserves too. Wouldn’t it be lovely if, one day in the not-too-distant future, every English county could support breeding cranes?