How cranes are making a comeback 400 years after disappearing from the UK
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.”
Protect Minsmere - Wildlife charities unite against Sizewell C
Possibly the RSPB’s best-known reserve, Minsmere, is recognised as one of the most important areas for nature in the UK, with more than 6,000 different species recorded on the reserve. It is famous for some of the UK’s rarest birds, such as marsh harriers and bitterns, that call this place home, and that only avoided extinction in the UK after surviving in Minsmere’s reedbeds.
However, the whole area is now being threatened by development. The Sizewell Estate, on the southern boundary of Minsmere, is where the energy company EDF plan to build a new nuclear power station, known as Sizewell C.
The RSPB and Suffolk Wildlife Trust are arguing against the proposed development, in the absence of any evidence that Sizewell C can be built without ruining this amazing section of the Suffolk coast.
The two organisations are also really concerned about the timing of the next phase of this decision. To do it now, in the middle of a public health crisis, means that the plans won’t get the public scrutiny they desperately need.
Ben McFarland, SWT’s Conservation Manager said: “Current plans suggest the direct loss of nationally important and protected land on Sizewell Belts, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). An area between 10-12 hectares – or roughly ten football pitches - will be covered in concrete. The loss of this nationally rare fen habitat would be devastating and irreplaceable.”
On land right next door to RSPB Minsmere, the build will bring the Sizewell Estate right to the very edge of the reserve. The building work may increase erosion, upsetting the delicate balance of the reserve. It could affect the water levels in Minsmere’s ditches, impacting its rare wetland wildlife, which includes bitterns, water voles, otters and ducks. Once the construction is in progress, it may increase levels of noise and light pollution. Marsh harriers, ducks and geese and wading birds in particular are very sensitive to this. The effects will be long-term.
With a lack of evidence to allay these concerns, the charities do not believe that the environmental evidence presented will allow for a full and robust assessment of all possible impacts of the application on the neighbouring conservation sites.
Adam Rowlands, RSPB Suffolk Area Manager said: “The Government has already recognised in their National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6) that Sizewell C could have detrimental impacts on internationally and nationally important landscapes, habitats and species of the Suffolk coast and at RSPB Minsmere nature reserve.
“EDF have not presented us with sufficient evidence that these disastrous impacts can be avoided. Without this evidence, we have been forced to conclude given the levels of uncertainty, that the build must not go ahead given its anticipated impacts on the environment.”
Adam added: “It’s outrageous that EDF have decided to proceed with this decision in the midst of a public health crisis. Nature is crucial to many people’s mental and physical wellbeing at this time of national challenge and I’m sure many will be disappointed to know that plans for Sizewell C represent a huge loss for nature.”
To find out more visit https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/campaigning/love-minsmere-sizewell-c/