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Survey reveals record number of UK's tallest bird

Posted on 14 Dec 2018

2018 has been the most successful year for Britain’s tallest bird – the Eurasian crane – since the 17th Century, according to figures released today.

A record 54 pairs produced 25 chicks, bringing the national total population up to around 180 birds. The last time there were that many was the 1600s – before large areas of Britain’s wetlands were drained for farming.

The success is the result of a near decade-long conservation plan to bring back the species – the Great Crane Project. This involved creating new wetland habitat, better managing existing wetlands, and hand-rearing birds to release into the wild to kick start the British population again.

Baz Hughes, WWT’s Head of Conservation Action said:

As part of the Great Crane Project, we reared 93 young cranes in purpose-built facilities at WWT Slimbridge and released them at the Somerset Levels and Moors over five years. The cranes adapted to life in the wild more successfully that anyone predicted and by the end of 2018, we have had nearly 60 nesting attempts events from which 18 chicks have successfully fledged, effectively doubling the UK population.

Common cranes now breed in England, Scotland and Wales, with most of the population found in the Norfolk Broads, East Anglian Fens, Somerset Levels and Gloucestershire.

Standing at a height of 4ft, with a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres, this stunning bird is the tallest and arguably the most distinctive bird in the UK. Wild cranes were once a widespread breeding species before they became extinct through hunting and the loss of their wetland habitat around 400 years ago.

In 2010, the project – a partnership between the WWT, RSPB and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust funded by Viridor Credits Environmental Company – set out to help a small population of birds that had returned to the UK. By creating and improving existing habitat and carefully hand-rearing young birds, conservationists aimed to restore healthy numbers of wild cranes throughout the UK by releasing them on the Somerset Levels and Moors.

Damon Bridge, Chair of the UK Crane Working Group said: “The crane was once found throughout the English countryside, as well as parts of Scotland and Wales. But it disappeared from Britain over 400 years ago because of hunting and the draining of its wetland home.

“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 latest crane survey has now revealed 54 pairs across the UK in 2018. Of these, up to 46 pairs attempted to breed and they raised 25 chicks. Since 2000, an incredible 160 chicks have been raised, significantly adding to the UK population. Wild cranes are now breeding in the Norfolk Broads, East Anglian Fens, Yorkshire and East Scotland, as well as populations in South-West England.

At WWT Slimbridge, where five breeding pairs of cranes have settled, three young cranes were raised over the summer, also marking the most successful year of the ambitious re-introduction scheme at the reserve.

Andrew Stanbury, RSPB Conservation scientist said:

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.

Chrissie Kelley, Head of Species Management at Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, said:

As partners in the GCP, and with a long association working with Eurasian Cranes, we are thrilled by these breeding figures. Seeing these birds in flight is breath-taking and one of our highlights this year was a flock of 15 wild cranes flying over the reserve. We hope soon to spot one of the released birds amongst those that visit Pensthorpe.