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Wetland Success - A guest blog by The RSPB's Andrew Stanbury for World Wetlands Day.

All too often in nature conservation, stories are full of doom and gloom; highlighting species in steep decline. However, today is World Wetland Day and I thought it would be a great opportunity to celebrate a real conservation success story; the return of common cranes to the UK. Following the natural recolonisation of a few birds in 1979 and extensive conservation work, including a reintroduction programme, they are making a return after a 400-year absence. 2020 was a record year, with a total of 64 pairs present; of which, up to 56 attempted to breed and fledged 23 young.

Cranes probably became extinct as a breeding species in the UK during the 16th century. Before this they often featured on the menus of medieval feasts or as quarry species; for example, a banquet to celebrate George Neville’s enthronement as Archbishop of York in September 1465 supposedly included 204 cranes. Cranes represented ‘the noblest quarry’ at which ‘the falconer could fly his Hawks’. In December 1212, King John flew his gyrfalcons at cranes so successfully that, at Ashwell, in Cambridgeshire, he killed seven, and on another even more successful occasion in Lincolnshire in February 1213 he brought down nine’. Clearly cranes were formerly quite common in certain areas.

Their return

Cranes recolonised Norfolk Broads in 1979, with the first breeding attempt in 1981. Their recovery has taken several decades, and progress was slow to begin with. The population stood at just five pairs in 2000, but thanks to the efforts of many dedicated individuals, the UK Crane Working Group (an official umbrella organisation for conservation bodies, land managers and other private individuals concerned with crane conservation), an increase in breeding success, the Great Crane Project (a reintroduction scheme to the Somerset Levels) and immigration from continental Europe, their numbers have increased over ten-fold since then.  

Cranes have now spread away from the Norfolk Broads to occupy other areas. Breeding cranes recolonised Yorkshire in 2001, and the East Anglian Fens at our Lakenheath reserve in 2007, Scotland in 2012 and Wales in 2016. Cranes can be incredibly productive. Over 210 young have now successfully fledged since recolonisation, with over half of these in the last five years alone. The UK population is now considered self-sustaining with high survival rates.

The role of protected areas and nature reserves

Since the start, the availability of large protected wetlands has been a vital component for their recovery. Over 80% of the breeding population is currently found on protected sites (SSSI’s, SPA’s) and nature reserves. These protected sites offer the solitude, habitats and the sympathetic management required, as cranes can be very sensitive to human disturbance, particularly while setting up territory and during the breeding season.

The RSPB has played a key role in their recovery. Along with WWT, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, and funded by Viridor Credits Environmental Company, we were partners in the Great Crane Project which released 93 captive reared birds between 2010 and 2014 to our West Sedgemoor reserve on the Somerset Levels. These birds have now started to breed.

Over a third of the UK breeding population, made up of a roughly 50:50 split between released birds and those of wild origin, are found on RSPB reserves alone. In 2020, there were 23 pairs found across nine sites. A pair of cranes nested on an RSPB nature reserve on the Suffolk coast for the first time and a pair held territory at RSPB Loch of Strathbeg. Suitable habitat conditions are also being created elsewhere. Fingers crossed cranes will colonise other reserves soon.

The future for cranes in the UK currently looks positive and their population is predicted to continue to expand. Last autumn saw a large numbers of cranes roosting on RSPB Nene Washes, with the peak of 78 being the highest modern-day count in Britain, other than a flock of about 100 birds on migration in Sussex in October 1963. There are few more spectacular and charismatic species than the common crane. Luckily, after the species’ absence, more people will get the opportunity to watch and listen to the amazing birds distinctive dancing and echoing bugling courtship.

If we want to see this amazing success repeated for other species and more done to halt and reverse the decline of the UK's wildlife then we must have an legislation in place, such as England’s Environment Bill, that is fit for purpose and sets legally binding targets to revive our world over the next decade.

UK Crane population increase and productivity between 1980 and 2020 


The Great Crane Project, a partnership between the RSPB, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Pensthorpe Conservation and Trust and Viridor Credits, reintroduced birds to the Somerset Levels with aim of returning them to other parts of their former range. This has boosted the UK population and improved their prospects nationally. These birds, each individually colour ringed, now make up roughly 50% of our crane population.

The RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen nature reserve, is a great example of wetland creation. Originally created for bitterns, cranes have bred annually on site since 2007. 

Andrew Stanbury is a Conservation Scientist, working within the RSPB's Conservation Science team at the RSPB's HQ in Bedfordshire. 

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Damon’s role is to act as the hub of the project - making sure everyone involved knows what is going on and that it is all running smoothly. He is also responsible for project community awareness work in Somerset, construction of the release enclosure, and running the post release monitoring work in Somerset.  Damon works alongside the RSPB reserve teams in Somerset.