How wetland restoration gave cranes a second chance in Britain

Guide
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

For four hundred years cranes vanished from the UK. Cranes were once widespread, their striking silhouette a familiar sight to those who lived near our wetlands. They were also, unfortunately for the cranes, a favourite dish at medieval feasts. Over one hundred cranes were served at Henry II’s Christmas feast in 1251. Their popularity with hunters and a decline in the wetland habitat they call home led to their extinction from the UK in around 1600.

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

A bird steeped in legend

They had been gone so long it was easy to forget they once performed their fabled dance – complex bows, pirouettes and bobs between a male and female, right here in the fens and marshes of the British Isles.

Their bugling call, said to be audible from 6km away, was not heard in the UK until a small number of cranes returned out of the blue to the Norfolk Broads in 1979. Cranes mature slowly compared to other birds and typically have low breeding success and despite the efforts of conservationists, numbers stayed low for decades.

But 2021 was the most successful year for cranes since at least the 17th century, with a record-breaking 72 pairs across the UK, of which 65 bred and these fledged 40 chicks.

How did cranes make a comeback?  

Work to improve wetland habitat for cranes 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. In 2009 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, releasing hand reared birds in the West Country. They also naturally recolonised Scotland in 2012. Over 80% of the breeding population are found on protected sites, with 26 pairs on RSPB reserves alone.

Half of our breeding cranes had a rather unusual childhood. These hatched from eggs brought over from Germany, as part of the Great Crane Project, to boost the UK’s fragile population but it was vital the chicks didn’t see or hear humans if they were to survive as wild birds. So their human adoptive parents dressed up in long grey costumes, fed them with an artificial crane head and while in disguise taught them how to forage, run and swim.

"Half of our breeding cranes hatched from eggs brought over from Germany, but it was vital the chicks didn’t see or hear humans if they were to survive as wild birds."

The total population is now believed to be over 200 birds: a new record. Last year saw the first fledgling crane hatched in Oxfordshire (at RSPB Otmoor reserve) since medieval times. The highest number of young fledged previously was 26 in 2019. 

No one is exactly sure why cranes suddenly returned in 1979 but it may be because the European population was starting to recover and increase.  

Why do cranes need wetlands? 

We’re glad you asked - February 2 marks World Wetlands Day.  

Cranes build their nests (a pile of vegetation) in shallow water. This offers them some protection from predators such as foxes. Wetlands also offer the seclusion they need to breed and to safely roost at night. Standing at 4ft, cranes may be Britain’s tallest bird, but they are shy and secretive and sensitive to human disturbance. Protected sites offer these majestic birds the solitude they crave.  

Why are wetlands magical?  

A huge range of wildlife can live or breed only in wetland. Many of the most awe-inspiring wildlife spectacles in the world are around wetlands, where huge numbers of waterbirds gather. The UK’s wetlands are especially important in winter because they generally don’t freeze over as frequently as continental ones, largely because of the influence of the Gulf Stream. This is one of the reasons most of the UK’s cranes don’t migrate: it’s nice and mild and the ground doesn’t freeze as much, so there’s normally food over winter.

Wetlands are a dynamic habitat with rains, floods and tides forcing water to come and go.

"A huge range of wildlife can live or breed only in wetland."

This brings nutrients and allows invertebrates and fish to move freely, creating temporary nurseries. Big floods change the shape of wetland channels and other waterways and provide new niches such as sand cliff faces for sand martins. The best wetlands have a range of water depth; in shallow areas light gets to the bottom and nourishes plants; deeper areas provide a refuge for fish during droughts and when surface water freezes over.

Wetlands provide a refuge for many species such as grazing animals when land on higher ground is parched. Big wetlands influence the local climate and can even moderate it.

Still not convinced? 

RSPB senior conservation officer Richard Archer said: “I’m a little bit biased I have to admit – wetlands are my favourite places. 

“They can create a ‘halo’ effect where land surrounding the wetland is often much richer for wildlife. We see it in the Lower Derwent Valley in North Yorkshire, where farmland bird populations are faring better compared to the rest of the country. 

“Most of my best birding experiences have been at wetlands. The Humber – watching 10,000 wintering golden plover in the air at once; the amazing avocet, spoonbill, black-tailed godwit flocks in Poole Harbour.

“I’m a little bit biased I have to admit – wetlands are my favourite places." - RSPB senior conservation officer Richard Archer

“Locally, Slapton Ley where I began birdwatching, watching migrant little terns and fabulous spring little gulls; the Fleet at Weymouth where I manage the Chesil little tern colony; and of course the wonderful Somerset Levels with its calling spring curlew and amazing colourful hay meadows.  

“Abroad – the salt lake in Cody, USA, where we stumbled across 100+ American avocets and summer plumaged Wilson’s phalaropes (unbelievable colours!); Kenya’s Lakes Nakuru, Naivasha, Baringo – half a million lesser flamingos, huge marsh owls, pelicans, fish eagles – honestly I didn’t know where to look first it was so exciting.” 

What’s the outlook for their future?  

The future for cranes in the UK is promising and their population is predicted to expand. The size of the crane population will ultimately depend on how the UK cares for its wetlands. The creation of landscape-scale conservation initiatives under the mantra of “more, bigger, better and joined up”, as promoted by Sir John Lawson’s ‘Making Space for Nature’ report, should benefit species such cranes as long as they include large wetland sites with disturbance-free zones.  


Work has been done to encourage them on RSPB reserves; particularly Lakenheath, Nene Washes, and across TheSomerset Levels and Moors but they are now expanding and colonising new areas on their own.