BIRD NOTE 7: Common Crane

common craneBritain’s tallest bird species, and the one with the biggest wingspan, is the Common Crane. In medieval times they were a common species and much treasured for the dining table. Indeed Gyr Falcons were obtained by Kings from the continent because they were the only birds with the size and strength to overpower a Crane. 

In Mark Cocker’s splendid book, “Birds Britannia”, he records that after one successful crane-hunting expedition with his Gyr Falcons King John caught enough to feed 100 paupers on bread, meat and ale. But over-hunting and habitat loss, notably wetland drainage, had a major impact on numbers and, by 1600 or possibly earlier, Cranes ceased to be a breeding species in Britain and died out. Evidence of their presence remains, however, in almost 300 place names such as Cranwell – Cranes spring – in Lincolnshire and Cranborne – Cranes stream – in Dorset.   

But in the 1970’s a comeback started when a small breeding population which originated in Continental Europe was re-established in the Norfolk Broads. In 1982 the first breeding success occurred. However, success was fragile because of the small numbers and so, spurred on by successful initiatives to re-introduce Red Kites and White-tailed Sea Eagles, it was decided to try to increase the population of Cranes. 

A wetland site was required and the Somerset Levels were rated as offering the best prospects. The Great Crane Project – a partnership between the RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust at Slimbridge and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust in Norfolk – was established in 2009 and began by obtaining legally-taken eggs from nests in Germany. The first release of 93 young cranes took place between 2010 and 2014 and the survival rate overall is just short of 80%. 

In 2015 16 pairs formed and held territories, many in the Levels but also more widely in South Wales, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and East Somerset. 

Nationally, 2018 was the most successful breeding year since the 17th Century with 54 pairs of adults producing 25 chicks. 

But recent years have also seen a return to the Fens and the RSPB’s Nene Washes in particular. On 12 December 2018 a record number of 48 birds were counted in a single flock in flight. But success is a slow process with a current British estimate of 180 birds and scientists hope for a population of up to 275 breeding pairs in 50 years. This illustrates the importance of reserves and protected sites to the survival and increase of such birds as 30% of the cranes are on RSPB sites. 

Cranes in flight with their huge wings and bugling calls are one of Britain’s real ornithological spectacles.