Common Crane, Grus grus, confirmed breeding of at least one pair at Lakenheath Fen RSPB reserve. Suffolk, England.

Bringing cranes back to the UK

Through a pioneering conservation project, people like you have helped us double the crane population in the UK.

An iconic wetland bird

Cranes were once one of our iconic wetland birds, but hunting and the draining of their habitat drove them all out, and we lost part of our natural heritage.

There was a glimmer of hope in the late 1970s, when a pair appeared in Norfolk and bred. Conservationists rushed to help them, protecting and nurturing the birds. But after decades, this new Eastern England population grew to only 20 pairs – not enough to spread wider.

And so the RSPB and its partners embarked on a bold plan.

Flock of cranes dancing and calling while others in the flock feed on corn scattered for them on pastureland, during autumn migration in Rugen-Bock-Region, Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, Germany

An iconic wetland sound

At dawn in a misty meadow in Somerset, a bugling call begins the new day. It’s a sound that hasn’t been heard round here for 400 years.

Two cranes bugle then a crane tends its eggs

Common Crane, Grus grus, confirmed breeding of at least one pair at Lakenheath Fen RSPB reserve. Suffolk, England.

The Great Crane Project

In 2010, we partnered with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, with funding from Viridor Credits, to bring crane eggs over from Germany.

The plan was to raise and release the chicks in south- west England, boosting the UK crane population by enough that they might one day be a permanent feature of our landscape.

Crane chick being fed
Crane chick

Back to school

In that first year, we brought over 25 eggs. Rearing them was a big challenge, requiring the construction of a purpose-built facility at the WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire.

It was vital that the chicks did not see or hear any humans – to survive, these captive-bred birds had to grow up with the same instincts as a wild bird. And so their adoptive parents – Amy and Harry – dressed up in long grey costumes that disguised their human form. 

Amy and Harry cared for the chicks as if they were their own children, feeding them with a crane-headed puppet, and teaching them the skills they would need to survive: walking, running, feeding, foraging and swimming.

Crane chicks can be quite aggressive with each other when they are first hatched, and so they were kept separate at first. But once the chicks were about 10 weeks old, Amy and Harry began to introduce them to each other and helped them to develop their social skills.

Now three feet tall, the chicks would soon be ready to leave the hatchery and adapt to life in the wild.

Cranes at crane school
Crane school

Release day

When the chicks were four months old, we transported them to a specially created enclosure  at our West Sedgemoor nature reserve in Somerset.

Amy and Harry travelled with them, and they continued training the birds for another six weeks. This included teaching them how to react to predators, such as foxes, with the help of a professional dog-handler and a terrier.

By now, the birds were running up and down the pen, flexing their wings and itching to be airborne. It was time to release them fully into the wild. As they took to their skies and began exploring their new territory, these graceful pioneers carried our hopes for a new population of UK cranes.

Crane flying over fence
Released crane

The next generation

Over the course of the five-year project, we brought over five batches of eggs from Germany, successfully releasing 93 birds into the wild. They have already spread from their Somerset home to Oxfordshire, South Wales, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Shropshire and Dorset.

But the real test was could these new cranes raise the next generation. Cranes don't begin breeding until they are four or five, so we would have to be patient.

In 2014, the first of the cranes began to make breeding attempts, but none were successful. In 2015, there were a dozen nesting attempts, and we were thrilled that four pairs successfully reared and fledged new chicks. This year, there have been 24 nesting attempts - right now we are waiting to see how they have fared.

Today, there are 150 cranes living in the UK, half from the original East Anglian population, and half from our reintroduced birds.

We're well on our way to a self-sustaining crane population, but there is still a lot of work to be done, and for that we rely on our dedicated RSPB members.

Crane egg
Crane egg

Thank you for making it happen

It's thanks to people like you that we've been able to give cranes a home in the UK once more. Our members fuel everything we do through their support. And it's thanks to them that we can continue this vital project.

The ongoing success of the crane reintroduction means creating ideal habitat for the birds wherever they disperse to. To do this, we're advising farmers and landowners on how to give cranes a home. This work will help a huge range of other wildlife, too.

The changes that landowners make will also encourage other wetland species, including water voles, wading birds and numerous insects.  

By joining the RSPB today, you can help give nature a home in a truly magnificent way. Thank you.

Cranes flying
Cranes flying