Species up­date

The Crane is a won­der­ful bird full of char­ac­ter and flair, but more needs to be done to pro­tect its fu­ture, says Kate Risely

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - KATE RISELY’S Kate Risely is the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy’s Gar­den Bird­watch Or­gan­iser

Kate Risely of the BTO on how the stately Crane needs our help

THE MARSHES, REEDBEDS and wet­lands of the Nor­folk Broads form a spe­cial land­scape with a real sense of wilder­ness. When I first moved to Nor­folk, I was keen to dis­cover its trea­sures and, on the ad­vice of my new col­leagues at the BTO, one of my ear­li­est trips was to watch the har­rier roost at Stubb Mill. I in­stantly loved the land­scape and the bird life, but the best sur­prise was look­ing over a hedge to see a small group of Cranes in a field. It was amaz­ing to see such large, grace­ful and ex­otic birds, ce­ment­ing the im­pres­sion of a rich wildlife haven. There are 15 species of crane across the world, and, with their spec­tac­u­lar flocks, danc­ing dis­plays and trum­pet­ing calls, they have cap­tured our imag­i­na­tions for thou­sands of years. Their need for large undis­turbed wet­lands means that many are en­dan­gered, and the iconic Ja­panese Red-crowned Crane and the Whoop­ing Crane in the United States have both been sub­ject to in­ten­sive, high-pro­file con­ser­va­tion ef­forts due to their ex­tremely threat­ened pop­u­la­tions. Our Crane, aka Com­mon Crane, is one of the more se­cure species, with a breed­ing range that stretches from north-eastern Europe across Rus­sia, and win­ter­ing grounds across Africa and south Asia. In past times, they also bred widely in the UK, and traces of their pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pa­tion can be found in place names from Carn­forth in Lan­cashire to Cran­borne in Dorset, and even to the tiny ham­let of Cran­wich in Nor­folk, on my own doorstep. As the wet­lands were drained and the land­scape tamed, the Cranes de­clined, and they were lost as a Bri­tish breed­ing bird 400 years ago. For a long time, they were only seen in this coun­try in small num­bers, as win­ter and pas­sage vis­i­tors, but over the last 40 years they have started to make a come­back. In 1979, Cranes were seen at Horsey in the Nor­folk Broads, very close to where I had my en­counter, and in 1981 they at­tempted to breed, un­suc­cess­fully at first, but be­fore long a tiny pop­u­la­tion was es­tab­lished. At­tempts were made to keep the breed­ing at­tempts se­cret, though with the largest wing­span of any Bri­tish bird, Cranes are hardly in­con­spic­u­ous, and ru­mours soon spread through the lo­cal and bird­watch­ing com­mu­ni­ties. A watch was set up on the nests to guard against egg col­lec­tors, and a code de­vised for walkie-talkie mes­sages; the scientific name for Cranes, Grus grus, was short­ened to ‘gee gee’, and the males, fe­males and chicks were re­ferred to as stal­lions, mares and foals. The ex­ten­sive wet­lands and undis­turbed con­di­tions, to­gether with pro­tec­tion from the es­tate owner, led to the suc­cess of the Nor­folk Cranes, and there is now a small but healthy pop­u­la­tion. Since 2007, they have also bred at Lak­en­heath on the Nor­folk/ Suf­folk bor­der, and other sites across the Fens. This nat­u­ral re­coloni­sa­tion has been com­ple­mented by the Great Crane Project, rein­tro­duc­ing the species to the Som­er­set Lev­els and Moors. Nearly 100 hand-reared birds, hatched from eggs taken from Ger­man breed­ing pop­u­la­tions, were re­leased be­tween 2010 and 2015, and have suc­cess­fully bred and raised their own chicks. With a slowly grow­ing breed­ing pop­u­la­tion, and oc­ca­sional au­tumn mi­grants dis­pers­ing from con­ti­nen­tal Europe, there is po­ten­tial for fur­ther in­creases, but this will need ex­ten­sive restora­tion and pro­tec­tion of our be­lea­guered wet­land habi­tats.

Nearly 100 hand-reared birds, were re­leased be­tween 2010 and 2015, and have suc­cess­fully bred and raised their own chicks

BIG BIRD Cranes are huge, stately birds, stand­ing much higher than any heron

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