The Great Crane project has reported record numbers of cranes in Britain CREDIT: SACHA DENCH WWT
Cranes are at their highest numbers in Britain since the Elizabethan era after conservationists dressed as birds to teach chicks how to survive in the wild.
There are now 48 breeding pairs following a programme to re-establish the birds in wetlands following their extinction in the UK, largely through hunting in the 1600s.
Standing at a height of four feet, the graceful grey bird was once a familiar sight and sound in Britain with its spectacular mating dance and echoing call.
But the species disappeared for more than 400 years until a small number of wild cranes re-established themselves in the Norfolk Broads in 1978 and a spread to a few pockets of Eastern England.
Ten week old Common / Eurasian crane chicks with surrogate crane parent CREDIT: NICK UPTON
Since 2010, the Great Crane Project has been attempting to help the small populations to grow by hand rearing young, and dressing as surrogate ‘mothers’ to teach chicks how to forage for insects and encourage birds to exercise so they build up strength which will help them to survive in the wild.
Damon Bridge, RSPB manager of the Great Crane Project, said: “The crane was once an iconic species in Britain, its echoing call could be heard throughout the English countryside, as well as spots in Scotland and Wales.
“But it was wiped out from Britain over 400 years ago because of hunting and the draining of its favoured wetland habitat.
“To see them returning in ever increasing numbers to their former homes after all this time is an amazing spectacle that many more people will be able to enjoy and a true reflection of how important our wetland habitat is to cranes and many other species.”
A crane chick CREDIT: JS LEES WWT
The elegance of the crane, and its spectacular courtship dance, in which the male and female leap, bow, twirl and call to each other, has led to the species being revered across cultures.
Pliny the Elder wrote that cranes would appoint one of their group to stand guard while the others slept. The sentry held a stone in one claw so that if it fell asleep, the stone would fall to the ground and waken the bird. The legend is still seen in heraldry where a crane holding a stone in its claw is known as ‘a crane in its vigilance.’
Aristotle believed that cranes carried a touchstone in its stomach which, if vomited up, could be used to test for gold.
Ten week old Common / Eurasian crane chicks being taught to forage in a water channel by a surrogate crane parent wearing grey smock and holding model adult head CREDIT: NICK UPTON
The Great Crane Project released 93 birds in the south west of England between 2010 and 2014 helping to secure the long-term future of wild cranes in the UK.
Wild cranes are now breeding in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire and East Scotland, as well as populations in Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Rebecca Lee, WWT Principal Conservation Breeding Officer, said: “It’s a dream come true. We devised the Great Crane Project so that we could kickstart a population of cranes here, in the west, in the hope that it would expand in tandem with those that had already settled in the east, and eventually the two would meet.
“It’s still early days, but it all seems to be happening. Cranes have now bred successfully in England, Scotland and Wales, and we’re not far off 50 breeding pairs, where just a decade ago there were barely a tenth of that. Cranes are well on track to become a true conservation success story for the UK.”