The ‘magnificent’ common crane is on the increase in East Anglia

Beatrice and her mate. Taken in 2016 by Charlie Kitchin.

Beatrice and her mate. Taken in 2016 by Charlie Kitchin. - Credit: Charlie Kitchin

The UK’s tallest bird, the common crane, is returning to wetlands in the region thanks to the success of conservation projects.

An adult common crane flying Picture: DAVID ROGERS

An adult common crane flying Picture: DAVID ROGERS - Credit: Dave Rogers

Figures reveal that 2018 has been the best year for the common crane since the 17th century, with a third of breeding pairs - 22 - to be found in the Norfolk Broads and the Fens.

Nationally, a record 54 pairs produced 25 chicks, bringing the total population to about 180 birds.

The elegant, willowy birds may be more familiar to many of us in Oriental drawings than in the misty fields of East Anglia, but they have made the region their home.

Of the 22 breeding pairs in the Norfolk Broads and the Fens, 19 bred this year and fledged 17 young birds.

A young crane Picture: DAVID ROGERS

A young crane Picture: DAVID ROGERS - Credit: Dave Rogers

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Thanks to the dedication of individuals, the UK Crane Working Group, the 2010 Great Crane Project and conservation organisations, healthy numbers of wild cranes are being restored.

In this region, good sites to see common cranes are at RSPB Lakenheath Fen, Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad Reserve and around Stubb Mill.

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There are currently more than 40 birds over-wintering at the RSPB reserves at Ouse Washes and Nene Washes.

Dave Rogers, site manager at RSPB Lakenheath Fen, said: “It’s wonderful that the enhancement of wetland habitats in the region and the Great Crane Project is proving successful.

“Common cranes are magnificent birds. Standing more than a metre high, they are very distinct with their entertaining dance in springtime and their bugling call which can be heard up to two miles away.”

Damon Bridge, chair of the UK Crane Working Group, said to see them returning to their former homes and begin the spread back across the UK after all this time “is brilliant and a true reflection of how important our wetland habitat is to cranes and many other species”.

Wild cranes were once widespread in Britain before they became extinct through hunting and the loss of their wetland habitat around the 1600s.

In 1979 a small number of wild cranes returned to the UK and established themselves in an area of the Norfolk Broads.

Thanks to dedicated conservation work, cranes slowly spread to other areas of eastern England.

In 2010 the Great Crane Project – a partnership between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust set out to help this small population of birds.

By creating and improving existing habitat and carefully hand-rearing young birds, the project aimed to restore healthy numbers of wild cranes throughout the UK by releasing them on the Somerset Levels and Moors.

Charlie Kitchin, site manager at Nene Washes, said: “The cranes have made a very welcome return to the Fens.

“Since first nesting at the Nene Washes in 2010 they have increased to four pairs, and we recently recorded a flock of 43 birds at Eldernell.

“They have become a familiar sight to local bird-watchers and farmers, particularly in the winter when they can be seen feeding on the stubbles.”

Andrew Stanbury, RSPB conservation scientist, added: “This success story highlights the importance of the UK’s protected sites and nature reserves.

“RSPB sites alone hold 30% of the UK breeding population. These special places offer the seclusion necessary for cranes to breed successfully.

“For this expansion to continue we need to better protect existing sites and look to creating and maintaining others.”

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