The UK's tallest bird (100–130 cm or 4ft) and one of the most immediately recognisable, the Common Crane was once common across East Anglia but disappeared from the English landscape when the Fens were drained over 300 years ago. It remains a widespread species across much of northern Europe, and its estimated global population in 2006 was c.360,000 to 370,000 individuals (Wetlands International 2006).
For over 300 years, the Crane was absent as a breeding species in this country, but very small numbers of European birds did crop up on migration in spring and autumn. In the late 1970s, a very small group began summering at Hickling Broad in Norfolk. For years this was kept secret, but breeding is thought to have first occurred in 1981. Numbers increased very slowly, but by 2010 the birds had begun to spread to other locations (two pairs of Cranes bred at the RSPB's Lakenheath reserve in 2009), and the UK breeding population was estimated at 13 to 14 pairs. Almost all Cranes that breed in Northern Europe winter further south around the Mediterranean and North Africa, but the growing UK population seems to stay for the winter with an estimated number of 50 individuals present in 2010-11.
In addition to the naturally occurring colonisation of East Anglia, steps are under way to re-establish a sustainable population of Common Cranes in the Somerset levels.
Cranes at the Great Fen in 2008-9
With the East Anglian population of Cranes on the rise, sightings became more frequent in the western parts of the fens, in particular at the Ouse Washes at Welney and the Nene Washes near Whittlesey. The latter site is only about 8 miles from the Great Fen, so there was no great surprise but much delight when a pair of Cranes were discovered on Darlow's Farm in April 2008. The two adult birds were seen feeding and also displaying and attempting to mate. They visited Woodwalton Fen several times, roosting in the reedbeds by night and displaying and dancing on the restored fenland of Middle Farm and Darlow's Farm by day.
The Cranes’ bugling calls could be heard just before dawn. Chris Gerrard from the Wildlife Trust said:
As the sun rose, the Cranes seemed to respond and started parading up and down, bills held aloft, calling continuously. Then they began bowing before leaping into the air, wings spread. The dance ended in a brief mating, a behaviour that has probably not been witnessed in Cambridgeshire for many years.
There seemed a possibility that they might attempt to breed, probably in the northern reedbed of Woodwalton Fen, though it was late in the season for a nest to be established. A discrete and regular watch was kept on the birds over several weeks. Volunteer Ken Davies' field notes from 5th May were typical:
Arrived 6.45am, mist clearing, warm and still. Located the birds immediately in the usual field, feeding quietly amongst the group of horses. Both birds in view the whole two hours I was there. Occasional (about every 30 mins) bouts of 'prancing and dancing', and also some ritualised stiff-legged walking together with necks stretched out at 45 degrees. Brief calls heard too. One attempt to mate observed.
As May wore on, it became clear that the pair of birds were not going to breed. They were frequently seen flying to and from the direction of the Nene Washes and gradually appearances on Darlows Farm became very few.
In 2009 a pair appeared on Darlow's Farm much earlier in the year, again raising hopes of breeding. They were seen fairly regularly throughout the next couple of months, and their display dance was a feature of the sightings but once again no breeding occurred.
What habitat do they need?
Since 2009 occasional sightings have continued, both in summer and winter, but the hoped-for breeding has not occurred... yet. Probably the birds who prospected in 2008-9 were young adults and it may be that either they did not survive, or that the reedbed in Woodwalton Fen was not suitable or large enough for them to be undisturbed and they went elsewhere.
The books say that the nest of the Common Crane in Europe is usually a mound of wetland vegetation generally placed in or near water in inaccessible, undisturbed bog, marsh, or sedge meadow.
Breeding has occurred in the UK in a variety of broad habitat types usually, (but not always) very distant from human access. At Lakenheath in Suffolk, work started in 1995 to convert 200 ha of arable farmland into wetland habitats consisting mainly of reedbeds and grazing marshes, so there are strong similarities with parts of the future Great Fen. A key feature is probably the size of the reedbed and also the fact that a significant area can be left totally undisturbed in late winter and early spring.
The new Rymes Reedbed should provide just these requirements so, with the UK population increasing, more and more young birds will be looking for this scarce habitat and there are strong hopes that this part of the fens will, before too long be home to this most majestic, huge and distinctive species.
This summary compiled by Barrie Galpin, February 2013
1) Cranes by Vadim Gortbatov. Art work from the book The Great Fen: (Artists for Nature in England)
2) Distant view of the pair of Cranes at Darlows Farm. David Holliday
3) Cranes flying over Middle Farm. David Holliday