Cranes of Great Britain

Cranes are large, long-legged and long-necked birds of the order Gruiformes. Two species occur as wild birds in Britain: the Common Crane, a scarce migrant and very localised breeding resident, and the Sandhill Crane, an extreme vagrant from North America. A third species, the Demoiselle Crane, has been recorded on a number of occasions, but these birds have not generally been accepted as being of wild origin.

A number of other species are kept in captivity, resulting in the possibility of escapees being seen.

Common Crane

Historical occurrence

The Common Crane is generally believed to have been a breeding bird in Britain in the Middle Ages. Confusion arises as the Grey Heron was, and still is, known as "crane" in many parts of rural England. Among the strongest evidence that Common Cranes did genuinely occur was the fact that an Act of Parliament of 1533 included a measure that made the taking of cranes' eggs an offence, punishable by a fine, and five mentions in the "Household book of the L'Estrange family" of the supply of cranes for their larder between 1519 and 1533.

English place names with the prefix "Cran" are not infrequent, and derive from the bird, for example the name of Cranfield in Bedfordshire derives from the Anglo-Saxon crane feld - open country frequented by cranes.[1]

Migrant status

Common Crane is a scarce spring and autumn migrant to Britain, with occasional birds remaining in winter or summer.

Recolonisation of the Norfolk Broads

In the late 20th century, Common Crane recolonised the Norfolk Broads; the species has now established a resident population of some 20 individuals. This population is centred around the northeastern part of the Broads, in the Sea Palling / Horsey / Hickling area.

The origins of this population can be traced to 15 September 1979, when two birds appeared near Hickling Broad; these two were joined by a third bird on 10 October. On 7 October, a Crane with a rubber object wrapped around its bill was found in the Irstead / Horning area. It was taken into care and released on Horsey in March 1980, temporarily bringing the population to four.

The 1980s

By the end of April 1980, only two birds remained; however, these birds stayed throughout 1980 and 1981, and in 1982 raised a single young, the first successful breeding in Britain for around four hundred years. A second young was raised in 1983, but disappeared before the end of the year. An additional bird joined the group on 16 August 1982, and remained with them until at least 1987.

Further breeding attempts were made from 1985 through until the end of the 1980s, those in 1986 and 1988 being successful, with one young each raised. In addition, further migrant birds joined the flock; not all stayed, however both the wintering and summering populations steadily grew, as shown below:

Winter 1979/80 1980/1 1981/2 1982/3 1983/4 1984/5 1985/6 1986/7 1987/8 1988/9
Maximum winter count 4 2 2 4 4 4 5 6 6 9
Summer 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989
Number of pairs attempting to breed
Number of young raised 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 0

The 1990s

During most of the 1990s, the population remained steady; however with several successful breeding attempts in the late 1990s, the population began to climb into double figures. Data on the 1990s' populations and breeding activity are as follows:

Winter 1989/90 1990/1 1991/2 1992/3 1993/4 1994/5 1995/6 1996/7 1997/8 1998/9
Maximum winter count 8 6 6 8 9 6 16 12 10 11
Summer 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
Number of pairs attempting to breed 3 3 0 3 4 3
Number of young raised 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 1 1

The 2000s

Figures for the 2000s so far:

Winter 1999/00 2000/1 2001/2 2002/3 2003/4 2004/5 2005/6 2006/7
Maximum winter count 13 11 16 15 20 24 34 35
Summer 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
Number of pairs attempting to breed 0 2 2 2 4 5
Number of young raised 0 4 2 3 4 5 1

Recent summering birds elsewhere in Britain

Away from the Broadland population, other birds have shown breeding behaviour, including:

  • a displaying pair in Essex from May to September 1987
  • pairs at two localities in Yorkshire in 2002, one of which was observed displaying
  • a pair bred successfully on the Humberhaed levels in 2008 and 2009, rearing one chick each time. Two young hatched in each year but one from each brood was predated, probably by foxes.[2]
  • a pair which nested in 2007 at Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk.[3][4] A second pair was also present, but did not breed.
  • a pair bred and reared one young in the nene washes in 2010. (RSPB)

The Great Crane Project

In 2007, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust began a project with the aim of re-establishing a breeding population of cranes at a new wetland site in the UK, thus securing its future as a breeding species. A "Crane school" has been set up at WWT Slimbridge; this consists of a 1-acre (4,000 m2) marsh garden designed to rear crane chicks in as close to a wild environment as possible. Although the cranes are hand-reared, all humans having contact with the birds wear special grey crane suits, complete with hoods, and feed them using litter pickers customised so the ends look like crane heads.[5]

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane is a very rare vagrant in Britain, having been recorded just four times, twice in Shetland:

  • a first-summer on Fair Isle on 26 & 27 April 1980
  • a first-summer bird at Exnaboe from 17 to 27 September 1991 (this bird was subsequently seen in the Netherlands)
  • a bird in Orkney in 2009
  • an adult was first spotted in Aberdeenshire on 22 September 2011. It then moved south through Northumberland, Cleveland, North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire before settling again in Suffolk on 2 October 2011.

Elsewhere in Europe, there are records of Sandhill Crane from Galley Head, County Cork, Ireland in September 1905, and from the Faroe Islands on 14 October 1980.

Demoiselle Crane

Demoiselle Crane has been recorded a number of times — in Cumbria, Dorset, Hampshire, Kent, Lanarkshire, Lancashire, Lothian, Norfolk, Orkney, the Western Isles and Yorkshire. The origin of these birds is not known, and they have not been accepted onto the British List.


  1. ^ A History of Cranfield (accessed on 29 Nov 2008)
  2. ^ Cranes breed again at Yorkshire reserve
  3. ^ RSPB article (accessed on 18 May 2007)
  4. ^ Eastern Daily Press article (accessed on 18 May 2007)
  5. ^ The Great Crane Project (accessed on 29 Nov 2008)

Information on the historical status of Common Crane was sourced from:

  • Holloway, Simon (1996) The Historical Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland T. & A. D. Poyser (p. 433)

Information on the recolonisation of the Norfolk Broads was sourced from:

  • Gantlett, Steve (1991) The Cranes of Broadland Birding World 4(2): 66-68
  • Norwich and Norfolk Naturalists Society (2005) Norfolk Bird and Mammal Reports 1988 - 2004
  • Ogilvie, Malcolm and the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (2001) Rare Breeding Birds in the United Kingdom in 1999 British Birds 94(8):344-381 (p. 364)
  • Ogilvie, Malcolm and the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (2002) Rare Breeding Birds in the United Kingdom in 2000 British Birds 95(11):542-582 (p. 564)
  • Ogilvie, Malcolm and the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (2003) Rare Breeding Birds in the United Kingdom in 2001 British Birds 96(10):476-519 (p. 502)
  • Ogilvie, Malcolm and the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (2004) Rare Breeding Birds in the United Kingdom in 2002 British Birds 97(10):492-536 (p. 518)
  • Taylor, Moss, Michael Seago, Peter Allard and Don Dorling (1999) The Birds of Norfolk Pica Press (pp. 229–231)

Information on Sandhill Cranes in Europe was sourced from:

  • Ellis, Pete (1991) The Sandhill Crane in Shetland Birding World 4(9):322-323

Information on Demoiselle Crane was sourced from:

  • Evans, Lee, G. R. (1994) Rare Birds in Britain 1800-1990

External links

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