A small colony of common cranes are now established in Suffolk – the first time these majestic birds have lived in the county for 400 years.
It was the day after Storm Eunice had blown through Suffolk, leaving felled branches and wood debris in its wake.
The wind still had some force to it and there was an other worldliness to this damp and cold morning. It seemed to me; this was just the weather for going in search of giants.
I’d journeyed to the RSPB Lakenheath Fen reserve, just west of Thetford Forest, in the hope of catching a sight of Suffolk’s only colony of common cranes. At 4ft in height, the common crane is the UK’s tallest bird and a species making a comeback on these shores after becoming extinct around 400 years ago.
Wild cranes were once widespread in these parts to the point that place names mark their presence from yesteryear. I noticed on the map a location nearby named Cranwick Heath – so called because presumably large numbers of this majestic bird once congregated here. Medieval texts reference the crane being hunted for sport and feasts. This practice, coupled with the wholesale draining of its favoured wetland habitat to create prime farming land, led to the crane’s disappearance from Britain in the 17th Century.
But recently things have been looking up for Grus grus, as the common crane is known scientifically, and East Anglia is at the centre of this uplifting revival story.
In 1979, a small number of wild cranes returned to the UK – most likely European birds blown off course – and colonised a small area of the Broads in Norfolk before spreading to other areas of eastern England and elsewhere in the UK. Today, there is estimated to be a population of 200 cranes, amassed mainly in the Fens and Broads, and the marshland of southwest England in Somerset where a small reintroduction programme has taken place.
Crucial to the cranes’ success have been efforts to restore reedbeds, which provide a place for this majestic bird and other wetland species to feed and nest. Incredibly, only 2% of the original area of the Fens remain today. But latterly, there has been a growing realisation of the importance of this wonderful landscape – both as a home for wildlife and as a store for carbon in its peat soil.
The creation and improvement of reedbeds such as at RSPB Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk and RSPB Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire has significantly aided the recent success of the crane in the east.
And what a transformation. Today, 27 years later, there are nearly 400 hectares of species rich habitat on the reserve including wet reedbed, ungrazed fen and wet grassland, site manager David Rogers tells me. A startling indication of the success the RSPB has had here can be gleaned by comparing two surveys – one from the first year of the reserve’s life when only 24 reed and sedge warblers and reed buntings were recorded here, and the other from last year when the number of these species totalled over 1000 birds.
Staff maintain this Eden by grazing rare breed cattle and controlling water levels through a series of pumps and sluices. Much of the credit for bringing this land back to life must go to David’s predecessor Norman Sills who oversaw the first decade or so of this work.
It was originally intended that the site be developed to provide habitat for the bittern – a bird that was on the verge of extinction in the UK in the mid-1990s – and that other reedbed specialists species, such as marsh harrier, bearded reedling and water vole would also be attracted to the reserve.
Out of the blue
But then in 2007 two pairs of cranes turned up out of the blue – again probably blown off their usual flight paths through Russia and northern Europe.
“We realised that this developing reedbed was ideal crane nesting habitat,” David tells me.
“They like to nest in shallow water in secluded locations. Here, we’ve got this high reed that hides them from humans and then this shallow water where they can build a big nest, made up of chopped up vegetation, like a mute swan’s nest.
“We’ve had to modify our plans because we want to keep them here. In 2009, one of the pairs reared the first crane in the Fens for 400 years and we’ve had cranes nest here ever since and last year we had three pairs nest with us. In the past 15 years our cranes have fledged 18 chicks.”
As we drive along the tracks that lead to the more secluded parts of the reserve where we hope to see the cranes, David tells me that late February, early March is the time of year when the cranes are most active.
“Cranes in the UK are non-migratory,” he continues.
“They stay in the fens all winter and generally go to the Ouse Washes and Nene Washes in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.
“When they return here, they have dependent chicks with them, but the young are no longer welcome. Mum and dad have looked after them but now will chase them off, so they can get down to the business of marking out their territory and finding a nest location. Cranes are early nesters and will be on the eggs by the middle of March.
“Their young will move back west to the Ouse Washes and Nene Washes where they will socialise with other non-breeding cranes and hopefully pair up – it’s three years before they breed.”
Suddenly we lurch to a stop, the weather has turned rainy and windy, and visibility is poor. David points to the far distance – about 100 metres away – and tells me there are a group of cranes partially hidden by reeds. He explains they are very nervous birds and have very good eyesight.
“They will not let people get close to them and will be scared off if we try and get nearer,” he warns.
With my covid mask on, my glasses are steaming up and its hard to focus through binoculars while the window screen wipers are moving back and forth. But I can just make out the tall, curved form of an adult crane, slate grey in colour with a white flash running down the length of its neck. The signature bustle of feathers on its rear is also apparent. There are at least three of them, mostly obscured, including at least one young bird – yet to be expelled from the family group.
David reverses the vehicle away, not wanting to bother the birds anymore. I feel a tad frustrated that I didn’t get a better view, but the over-riding feeling is one of not wanting to stress these birds and scare them from this place they now call home.
I ponder these mixed feelings on the drive home – and decide that my needs come a very distant second. In a small county such as ours, we are lucky that there are places still wild enough that birds the size of cranes feel safe and secure enough to come back to us.
This article first appeared in the Suffolk Magazine – May 2022