Cranes are known to be the tallest birds in the UK with a height of about 4 feet. Cranes disappeared around 1600s due to excessive hunting activities and wetland decline but after four centuries cranes have returned thanks to re-introduction and ecological restoration.

A history of Common Cranes in the UK

Common Cranes are large, graceful, long-necked birds with long legs and curved tail feathers. These birds weigh about 4 to 7 kg, and they eat roots, seeds, and insects, usually snails and worms. Crane population was once so common in Britain that 204 were served roasted at a banquet for the Archbishop of York in 1465. English place-names with the prefix ”cran”, such as Cranfield in Bedfordshire, refer to areas frequented by the birds. Ecological disturbance, hunting, and draining of marshlands led to their disappearance as a breeding bird about 400 years ago, until a trio of migrating birds were blown off course in 1979, ending up in Norfolk.

Unlike all other cranes in Europe, most of the UK’s cranes are resident species and do not migrate out of the UK for the winter. The only possible exception includes cranes that originate from the Norwegian population and disappear each winter – probably heading to continental Europe.

Conservation efforts for Crane population in the UK

In 2010, the Great Crane Project – a partnership between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Wildfowl and Wetland Trust Limited (WWT) and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust (PCT), and funded by Viridor Credits Environmental Company (VCEC) helped to create and improve existing habitat for the birds along with their reintroduction to nature. Reintroduction of cranes, their protection, and landscape-level habitat restoration projects via combined efforts led to an increase in the population.

The conservation effort resulted in excellent results which led to a sanctuary for 56 pairs of cranes across the UK in 2019. Out of these 56, 47 pairs attempted to breed and they raised 26 chicks. An estimated 200 cranes are now dispersed in Scotland, Wales, Suffolk, the Fens, and Gloucestershire region, which is a new record.

Chrissie Kelley, from the PCT, said: “We are excited to see these birds doing so well. “Seeing them during their flight is a breath-taking moment, as we have regular sightings of them at our reserve after they re-colonized Scotland in 2012 and Wales in 2016.” They have spread to other reserves and peatlands, benefiting from improved habitat.”

Damon Bridge, from UK Crane Working Group (CCWG), said: “The increase of cranes over the last few years shows just how resilient nature can be when given the chance. Thanks to the support of our partners, the Common Cranes have a natural habitat, giving them a place to recover after the winter, to raise their chicks. The cranes are not yet out of the woods, but their gradual increase in population is a positive sign.”

Andrew Stanbury, a conservation scientist at RSPB, said: “It is due to the dedication of the individuals involved in the projects, conservation organizations, and UK CCWG that we are able to witness the growth in numbers for the Common Crane. Nature reserves have played a significant role in the increase of population, as approximately 85% of the breeding population is found in protected areas, a third of them in RSPB reserves alone.”

Population modeling data from the RSPB shows that the number will increase much faster as the reproduction capability of the surviving birds increases with age and second-generation chicks reach breeding age.

Dr. Geoff Hilton, a conservation biologist at WWT, said: “The reintroduction of lost species must be supported with good habitat management and protection for the recovery to work. The success of the Common Crane project shows what could be achieved in a short span of time by nature. We are obliged to thank land managers and farmers for their support and enthusiasm in the area for supporting Common Crane conservation.”

CITE THIS ARTICLE: "The unbelievable comeback of UK’s cranes in 400 years," in Geoscience Daily, April 28, 2020, https://geosciencedaily.com/environment/unbelievable-comeback-of-cranes/.