The Great Crane Project has helped return common cranes to Somerset after an absence of over 400 years. Cranes died out in the UK as a result of over-hunting for food, and drainage of wetland habitats.The RSPB, has been overseeing the release stage of this national reintroduction project and working with farmers, landowners and local communities to ensure the long-term future of the crane in the area.
Over the last 5 years the project has reintroduced over 90 of these large and enigmatic water birds to The Somerset Levels and Moors, and the birds are becoming an exciting addition to the rich wildlife of the area. The cranes are just one of the wonderful natural spectacles that Somerset Levels have to offer. From the starling murmurations and booming bitterns at RSPB Hamwall to the flocks of thousands of wintering waterfowl on West Sedgemoor, and the spectacular Heronry at RSPB Swell Wood there is an incredible abundance of wildlife on the moors which are fast becoming a nature tourism destination of some note.
Each spring since 2010, eggs have been collected from a population of wild cranes in Germany. Cranes lay up to two eggs and if both their eggs are removed early in the breeding season a pair will simply re-lay, so the wild population is not affected adversely by the egg removal. 24 eggs have been transported to WWT Slimbridge each year, and the chicks hatched and reared by human foster parents wearing special costumes to hide their human shape and prevent the chicks imprinting on people. After about 12 weeks when they are starting to fly and have formed a well bonded flock they are ready to be transported to Somerset. In Somerset they spend some time in an aviary to get used to the surrounding landscape before they are released on to the Levels and Moors in late summer..
At present there are 65 surviving cranes in Somerset and a further 9 in Gloucestershire. In 2014, 5 pairs of cranes formed territories with 2 of these pairs going on to nest and incubate eggs. Unfortunately these nests were unsuccessful, but with larger number of birds reaching maturity and gaining more experience we are hopeful that 2015 will be a successful year and that we will see the first wild fledged cranes in the South West for the first time in over 400 years.
The RSPB has been working in close collaboration with local farmers, some of whom have been helping the cranes by developing and enhancing crane habitats on their land. More will be needed in the future, particularly suitable pools for nesting and insect rich grassland for rearing chicks.
The Great Crane Project project is a partnership between the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (based at Slimbridge, where the crane chicks have been reared) the RSPB, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, (based in Norfolk) and Viridor Credits Environmental Company which has provided the majority of the funding for the project.
For more information about the project visit http://www.thegreatcraneproject.org.uk/