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