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The Great Crane Project

Crane in wetland habitat

Image: Graham Catley

The Great Crane Project is a partnership project between the RSPB, the Wildlfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and the Pensthorpe Trust, with major funding support from Viridor Credits Environmental Company.

It was set up in 2006 with the aim of helping the re-colonisation of the UK by the crane and securing the crane's future as a breeding species. The next five years of the project will see the reintroduction of breeding cranes to the Somerset Levels.

The crane is amazing. A metre tall with a beautiful plume of wing feathers, it looks magnificent. Its trumpeting calls, evolved to carry across miles of marsh, sound astonishing. And they have a courtship dance that has to be seen to be believed. They were once a widespread and familiar bird of our countryside, leaving an indelible mark in our language, our folklore and even in hundreds of our place names.

for nearly 400 years, these stunning birds have been missing from our wetlands

But for nearly 400 years, these stunning birds have been missing from our wetlands. Drainage and hunting caused them to disappear as a breeding bird by the start of the 17th Century.

In 1979, a small population re-colonised the Norfolk Broads - a former breeding site – but while successful breeding has taken place since then, this small population remains isolated. If cranes are to re-colonise their other former wetland haunts in the UK, they need a big helping hand. The aim of the Great Crane Project is to do just that, to once more make the crane a familiar part of our wetland heritage, for all to enjoy.

The return of cranes took a major step forward in February 2009 with a generous £700,000 grant from the Viridor Credits Environmental Company. The funding will enable up to 100 young cranes to be reared at WWT Slimbridge and released over a five-year period in the Somerset Levels and Moors. The Great Crane Project partnership has looked at a number of UK wetlands for crane reintroduction, and believes that the Somerset Levels and Moors has the greatest potential. In particular, RSPB reserves provide good areas for cranes throughout the year.

The Levels and Moors are relatively undisturbed with few major hazards, and the climate is relatively mild. The precise location will be kept secret during the early stages of the programme, as cranes are sensitive to disturbance. The Project draws on the experience of the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, which has been successful in re-introducing whooping cranes to the wild in the USA. The project will conform to agreed IUCN/Species Survival Commission guidelines for reintroduction.

What we want to do

We aim to establish a resident non-migratory breeding population of about 20 pairs of cranes by 2030, with first breeding by about 2015. Eggs are planned to be taken from a healthy breeding population of around 350 pairs within the 129,000ha Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere reserve in Brandenburg, Germany. The eggs will then be transported in incubators to a hatching and rearing facility at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site at Slimbridge. Chicks will be hand-reared by costumed humans (as demonstrated at WWT's Crane School) so chicks grow up imprinted on 'models' of cranes and not human beings.

After ten weeks or so, the young birds will be moved to an two-hectare release enclosure on the Levels and Moors, with the first release of at least 20 fledged cranes planned for the autumn of 2010. Annual releases of 20 or more birds will follow for the next four years to give a 'founding flock' of about 100 birds.

There is a long history of cranes in Britain: over 270 places are named after them; their remains have turned up at 78 archaeological sites; they feature on illustrated manuscripts; 115 of them appeared on Henry III's Christmas menu in 1251 and an incredible 204 were on the Bishop of York's inauguration feast menu in 1465!

They occur widely in Europe, where populations have similarly suffered historically from loss of wetland breeding sites and through hunting, but are becoming adapted to breeding in agricultural areas and are now increasing in some areas, such as eastern Germany. Small numbers visit eastern and southern England each year on passage.

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