Scottish crane population hits record high

Kirsty Nutt

Tuesday 2 February 2021

Two adults and one young crane stand in a field near hay bales

Numbers of breeding cranes reached a record high in Scotland thanks to peatland restoration and wetland protection

  • The latest common crane survey reveals seven pairs in Scotland in 2020 and 64 pairs across the UK – both records.
  • Scotland’s breeding cranes might be on the cusp of a large increase
  • Cranes became extinct in the UK nearly 400 years ago and only began breeding in Scotland again in 2012, having returned to England in 1979. All Scotland’s cranes nest in North East Scotland.
  • Protecting and restoring peat bogs and other wetlands in this area would not only benefit cranes but help other wildlife as well as storing vast amounts of carbon

The number of cranes in Scotland and the UK reached record highs last year at seven pairs and 64 pairs. North East Scotland is home to all the known birds in Scotland, which now make up more than 10% of the UK population. The total UK population is now believed to be over 200 birds – also a new record.

Last year’s record Scottish numbers included two confirmed breeding pairs – which successfully raised three chicks, a record for a single year – along with two probable breeding pairs, one possible breeding pair, two summering pairs and a further five immature birds that are thought to have spent the summer in North East Scotland. This is up from just four pairs in 2018/19 and it’s believed the continuing increase in the number of summering birds suggests the Scottish population could be on the cusp of a significant expansion.

In addition to the established sites that are occupied most years – several new areas attracted nesting cranes. A potential new breeding pair was sighted in an area that had recently been the focus of peatland restoration projects led by RSPB Scotland and NatureScot with support from Scottish Water and Peatland Action Fund. And one of the confirmed breeding pairs fledged one chick from a peatland that had undergone restoration works through an agri-environment scheme.

RSPB Scotland believes that protecting and restoring more of the peat bogs in North East Scotland would not only benefit cranes but could have huge benefits for other wildlife as well as helping to tackle the climate emergency through storing vast amounts of carbon.

Hywel Maggs, Senior Conservation Officer for RSPB Scotland, said: "We are absolutely delighted that seven pairs of cranes were recorded in North East Scotland in 2020. Covid-19 lockdown restrictions meant that usual monitoring wasn’t possible and the exact number of pairs to breed in Scotland may never be fully known. However, thanks to reports from local people and farmers we have managed to piece together a picture of what happened.

"Watching the return of cranes to Scotland has been a real privilege. That they have decided to set up home in North East Scotland and numbers are growing shows how important some of the wilder landscapes here are. However, for this expansion to be sustained, we must ensure there are places for the new pairs to nest safely. The cranes have already nested on recently restored peatland and newly created wetland but many of the potential nest sites on peatlands and other wetlands are threatened by drainage and disturbance. Restoring more of these key areas would bring a myriad of benefits including creating the habitats that newly paired cranes are looking for and ultimately could lead to many more of these elegant birds in Scotland’s skies."

Cranes are the tallest bird in the UK, standing at 4ft. They are fabled for their dances; complex displays with bows, pirouettes and bobs, which take place every year between the male and female. These birds used to be quite common in the UK, but a combination of hunting and wetland decline led to their extinction in the 1600s.

In 1979, a small number of wild cranes returned to Norfolk and, since then, conservation groups have been working together to encourage more of them in the UK. Cranes have now spread to other areas where habitat was improved including the RSPB’s Lakenheath and Nene Washes reserves, and Natural England’s Humberhead Peatlands.

Further to this, in 2010, the Great Crane Project – a partnership between the RSPB, WWT and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, and funded by Viridor Credits Environmental Company – began creating and improving existing habitat, as well as hand-rearing young birds for release on the Somerset Levels and Moors.

In Scotland, after spending several years as migratory visitors, cranes were first recorded breeding in Aberdeenshire in 2012. Numbers remained   between one and four pairs before increasing to seven in 2020. Over this time, the North East Scotland birds have successfully raised 12 chicks. Some of these are now approaching breeding age (five) which will add to the growing numbers.

Efforts to restore and protect peatlands and wetlands have yielded impressive results with 64 pairs across the UK last year, producing 23 chicks. Over half of all the cranes fledged in the UK since 1980 have fledged since 2015. Most of the population is found in southern England, with the birds also breeding in Scotland and recorded in Wales.

Damon Bridge, Chair of the UK Crane Working Group said: "The return of cranes to the British landscape shows just how resilient nature can be when given the chance. If we want to see this success continue then these sites that cranes use and need must get adequate protection."

February 2nd marks World Wetlands Day, with the focus this year being on wetlands and water. Wetlands provide protection from floods and storms with each acre absorbing up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater. These important places not only help regulate the climate – peatlands store twice as much carbon as forests, with saltmarshes, mangroves and seagrass beds also holding vast amounts of carbon – but also provide a home for thousands of species including cranes.


Tagged with: Country: Scotland Country: UK Topic: Birds and wildlife Topic: Conservation Topic: Habitat conservation Topic: Site conservation Topic: Species conservation Topic: Water and wetlands