During a recent short break in Cambridgeshire, my wife and I visited a wetland nature reserve. As soon as we reached the car park overlooking the site I noticed two large birds flying across the reserve towards us. As I scrabbled for my binocular they dropped down into the wet grassland about 200 metres away. But even before I could train my lenses on them, I realised to my delight that they were cranes — the first I have ever seen in Britain.
|Common Cranes in Cambridgeshire|
While I was trying to photograph the distant birds, I met a binocular-toting dog-walker and asked her if cranes were regular visitors to the reserve. She told me that a pair had successfully bred a few years ago and then stayed on, sometimes joined by a few other birds.
(I will not identity the site, since I suspect that the conservation organisation responsible for it does not want publicity. There is certainly no mention of cranes on the reserve’s website pages.)
The by-no-means-common Common Crane (Grus grus) is mainly a long-distance migrant, breeding across northern Europe and Asia and predominantly wintering in northern Africa. It is one of Britain’s rarest birds, normally encountered only as a scarce passage migrant in spring and autumn.
The Common Crane bred in Britain in the Middle Ages, but land drainage and hunting led to its disappearance as a breeding bird by the start of the 17th century. But then in autumn 1979 two birds appeared in Norfolk at Hickling Broad and stayed on rather than continuing south. Three years later they raised a single chick — the first successful breeding in Britain for about 400 years. Over the following few years, they made further breeding attempts. Other birds stopped off from their migration to join them and a few of them also stayed on. And Hickling Broad now has a resident flock of about 20 birds, with two or three pairs breeding successfully each year.
This natural success in Norfolk stimulated a scheme called the Great Crane Project, in which the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust have sunk hundreds of thousands of pounds into persuading hand-reared cranes to breed in the Somerset Levels. The RSPB alone currently has a target of raising £1.5 million for this dubious project (see http://www.rspb.org.uk/joinandhelp/donations/campaigns/greatcraneproject/).
According to the RSPB website, the rationale for this horrendously costly scheme is that the small Norfolk Broads population “remains isolated” and cranes therefore “need a big helping hand” to recolonise their other former wetland haunts. But does the Norfolk population really “remain isolated”? And do cranes really need an extravagant “helping hand” elsewhere?
Without any expensive hand-rearing, cranes began breeding at the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen reserve in Suffolk a few years ago, and they have also bred on Humberside and in north-east Scotland, as well as at the Cambridgeshire reserve where I saw them. There is no reason why they should not naturally continue to spread into other wetland areas across Britain without the “helping hand” of the Great Crane Project. The money splurged on this profligate scheme could surely be used more effectively elsewhere.