New figures show cranes at a record high number after going extinct in the UK 400 years ago. In today’s blog Andrew Stanbury, RSPB Conservation Scientist, takes us through how the tallest bird in the UK started their comeback, and how conservation action is restoring their lost wetland habitats.  

The bugle falls silent 

400 years ago, cranes disappeared from the UK. While at one time they were so plentiful that Henry III’s served over 100 cranes at his Christmas feast, by the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign the crane’s iconic bugling call was already falling silent. Now, however, conservation efforts mean there are once again on the rise, with cranes seeing a record breeding year in 2021.  

Breeding crane pair at RSPB reserve Lakenheath, Suffolk (c) Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

The crane’s return 

After 400 years cranes began to return to the UK. In 1979 a small number colonised an area of the Norfolk Broads, and their subsequent expansion across eastern England and elsewhere in the UK gave some hope that they might be able to re-establish a viable breeding population.

One major constraining factor in their expansion, however, was the lack of habitat to spread into – they are birds of wetlands and peatland, and over centuries vast areas had been drained for agriculture, leaving cranes and other wildlife with fewer spaces to feed, shelter, or raise their young.  

Nature reserves and hand-rearing chicks 

During the first two decades, the recolonisation proceeded very slowly. The population stood at just four pairs nationally in 2000 and relying on migrant cranes that found their way over to the UK would take a significant length of time. Therefore, there was need to boost their numbers. 

So, in 2010 the Great Crane Project was formed – a partnership between the RSPB, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, funded by Viridor Credits Environmental Company, to hand-rear and release crane chicks on the Somerset Levels and Moors, creating another stronghold of crane populations.

Common crane chick © Damon Bridges 

Active conservation management has also become a key piece in the puzzle of how to rebuild crane populations. Nature reserves which fostered wetlands became strongholds, with RSPB sites such as RSPB Lakenheath and RSPB Nene Washes helping to boost the crane’s spread.  

The UK population is now roughly a 50:50 split between those of wild origin mainly in the east of the country and those from the Great Crane Project in the Somerset Levels and the Severn Valley. 

A new record is set 

All these efforts have worked – the latest breeding survey results show that there are now 72 pairs of cranes across the UK, a new record since the 1600s! Of these 72 pairs, up to 65 pairs bred in 2021 and these fledged an incredible 40 chicks, significantly adding to the UK population. The highest number of young fledged previously was 26 in 2019. 

18 month old and six month old cranes released by the Great Crane Project onto the Somerset Levels and Moors (c) Nick Upton (rspb-images.com) 

The concerted conservation effort on peatland restoration and wetland protection has significantly contributed to this recovery. Over 80% of the breeding population are found on protected sites, with 26 pairs on RSPB reserves alone, demonstrating just how effective nature reserves can be in species recovery.  

There are now an estimated over 200 cranes in the UK – the highest number since the Middle Ages.  

Where can I see them? 

Cranes are naturally secretive during the breeding period, but your best chance of seeing them on RSPB reserves is at West Sedgemoor, Lakenheath, Nene Washes and Loch of Strathbeg.  

What next for the cranes? 

Today, February 2nd, marks World Wetlands Day, a day to celebrate this vital and increasingly vulnerable habitat. The cranes show that active conservation of wetlands can reverse species decline and pave the way for returns of species not seen in centuries. For this rise to continue, however, we need to better protect existing sites and help create and maintain others. 

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