It may have been four centuries since the last crane was seen in the UK, but these majestic birds are still steeped in British legend.
At 4 ft tall cranes have reclaimed their title as the UK’s tallest bird and have wingspan greater than either of our two eagle species. What these birds are really fabled for, though, is their dancing – complex bows, pirouettes and bobs performed between a male and female every year.
So how could such an iconic bird disappear from the British Isles?
Cranes were once widespread and were a favourite dish at medieval feasts. Over one hundred cranes were served at Henry II’s Christmas feast in 1251. But their popularity with hunters and a decline in the wetland habitat they call home led to their extinction from the UK in around 1600.
The results of the latest crane survey released last month revealed a record-breaking 56 pairs, bringing the total population to an estimated 200 cranes.
Their bugling call, said to be audible from 6km away, was not heard in the UK until a small number of cranes returned to the Norfolk Broads in 1979. Cranes mature slowly compared to other birds and typically have poor breeding success and despite the efforts of conservationists, numbers stayed low for decades.
In 2010 the Great Crane Project – a partnership between the RSPB, WWT and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust funded by Viridor Credits Environmental Company- joined the movement to protect our precious cranes.
Work to improve habitat for cranes has enticed them to other parts of the UK such as RSPB’s Lakenheath and Nene Washes reserves as well as Natural England’s Humberhead Peatlands. They also recolonised Scotland in 2012 and Wales as recently as 2016. Last year 56 pairs were recorded across the UK with up to 47 pairs attempting to breed and 26 chicks raised successfully.
Damon Bridge, chairman of the UK Crane Working Group said the UK’s cranes are “not yet out of the woods” but growing numbers year after year “is a very positive sign”.
He added: “The increase of cranes over the last few years shows just how resilient nature can be when given the chance. With the support of our wonderful partners we’ve been able to recreate more and more of the cranes’ natural habitat, giving them a place to recuperate after the winter and raise their chicks.”
RSPB conservation scientist Andre Stanbury pointed out at least 85% of the breeding population are found on protected sites with a third on RSPB reserves alone. He said: “Thanks to the dedication of individuals, the UK Crane Working Group and conservation organisations, we are delighted to see crane numbers continuing to recover. Nature reserves have played a vital role.”
The Great Crane Project aims to establish a breeding population of 20 pairs in Somerset by 2025.