How the Crane has made East Anglia its home - 400 years after being made extinct

PUBLISHED: 14:46 14 December 2018 | UPDATED: 16:05 14 December 2018

Cranes have made Norfolk their home after successful breeding 22 chicks in 2018. Photo: Niel Bowman

Cranes have made Norfolk their home after successful breeding 22 chicks in 2018. Photo: Niel Bowman

Neil Bowman

With its elegant, willowy silhouette and height of four foot, the majestic crane has been missed since the 17th century, when hunting and loss of wetland made them extinct.

Common Crane, Grus grus,  at Lakenheath Fen RSPB reserve. Suffolk, England. Photo: Andy HayCommon Crane, Grus grus, at Lakenheath Fen RSPB reserve. Suffolk, England. Photo: Andy Hay

Now, more than 400 years later, the common crane has made a comeback with the highest number recorded since the 1600’s, with a third being found in Norfolk.

In the UK, it is reported that there are 54 breeding pairs, who produced 25 chicks in 2018 and 22 pairs and 17 of those chicks were bred in East Anglia.

In 1979, a small number of wild cranes returned to the UK and established themselves in the Norfolk Broads, and after dedicated work by the UK Crane Working Group and other conservation organisations, cranes began to spread to other areas of eastern England.

A crane chick shortly after hatching. Picture: Mark Hughes/WWTA crane chick shortly after hatching. Picture: Mark Hughes/WWT

This led to the creation of the ‘Great Crane Project’ in 2010, run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) the Wetlands Trust (WWT) and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust which sees the improvement of existing habitats and hand-rearing birds for release on the Somerset Levels and Moors.

Dave Rogers, site manager at RSPB Lakenheath Fen, Suffolk, 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.”

A Eurasian Crane.  Picture: PENSTHORPE NATURAL PARK.A Eurasian Crane. Picture: PENSTHORPE NATURAL PARK.

Emma Brand, events and marketing officer, WWT Welney Wetland Centre, said: “The Fens population do visit our reserve – the best time of year to see them is in the early autumn (September-October) when breeding and non-breeding individuals come together in a large flock.

“This summer we had a pair of cranes breed on the reserve for the first time here at WWT Welney, they hatched, raised and fledged a single chick.”

Chair of the UK Crane Working Group, Damon Bridge, 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.”

The Crane

The crane is a tall, graceful, mainly grey bird with long legs, a long neck and drooping, curved tail feathers.

They stand at four foot/120cm, have a wingspan of eight foot/245cm, can fly at 45mph and fly at altitudes of up to 10,000 metres.

Cranes live in wetlands or grassland habitats and can live for up to 50 years in the wild. The oldest known crane lived for 83 years in captivity.

Crane ‘calls’ can be heard as far as two miles away and they participate in an elaborate and enthusiastic ‘dance’, mostly for fun, however it can help develop their social skills and show when single adults are ready to breed.

Throughout Asia, the crane is a symbol of happiness and eternal youth and in Japan they symbolise good fortune and longevity.

Cranes are among the oldest living birds on the planet. A crane fossil found in the Ashfall Fossil Beds in northeast Nebraska was estimated to be around 10 million years old.

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