Wildlife - the stately crane

PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 December 2015



Paul Hobson

In Asian cultures the crane is a symbol of good health, longevity, truth and fidelity and an origami crane has become an international symbol of peace. Paul Hobson charts the return of this ancient bird to Derbyshire


The dark sky was split by a streak of intense red as the early sun cast its first beams across the departing night sky. I could hear music from somewhere in the distance as I waited. The streak widened and I peered even harder into the gloom. My eyes strained and then I spotted it, a huge bird with a slow and deliberate wing beat. Its long neck and legs left me in no doubt – an adult crane was winging its way towards my hide.

As the morning unfolded that solitary pioneer was joined by thousands of others and before long my hide, which was situated on the edge of a huge lake in Sweden, was surrounded by thousands of the most elegant birds I have ever seen. That far off music was now a full blown orchestra, as cranes bugled and displayed in their early spring courtship. The day flew by and as the evening approached they left in pairs or gangs to return to their night roosts. As the darkness enveloped my hide once again I could at last get out and stretch my legs – for the first time in 15 hours! Little did I know then (in the early 1980s) that there would come a time whenI would be able to watch with ease this incredible bird much closer to home.

Cranes became extinct as breeding birds in Britain about 400 years ago. Their huge size meant they were easy to hunt and could provide a large meaty reward. Saxon archaeological sites such as the one at Flixborough near Scunthorpe contain many crane bones, testament to its value as a food item. If you add to this the incredible amount of drainage that has occurred to improve farmland it’s not hard to see why the crane became extinct as a breeding bird.

In the late 1970s a few cranes started to show up in Norfolk and breed. Initially this was kept a secret, but like all good things it wasn’t long before bird watchers were regularly watching the Norfolk cranes. By 2000 cranes were starting to explore further afield and pairs successfully set up in South Yorkshire and more recently in Scotland.


These pioneers are forging the way, and they regularly wander. In Derbyshire prior to 1987 it would have been unheard of for a crane to show up. However, since then sightings are becoming more frequent, such as the five that were seen at Ogston in 2010. I suppose that these will increase as the years roll by and local populations such as those in the Humberhead levels and South West England increase.

I doubt, however, whether we will ever get a breeding pair actually setting up home in Derbyshire. I don’t think we really have enough of the flat wetlands that a pair requires, but you just never know!

To help boost this fledgling natural population the Great Crane Project was begun in 2009. This project is centred around Slimbridge in Gloucestershire and uses eggs from German birds which are hatched and reared before the birds are released into the Somerset Levels area.

This year a released pair in the wild successfully raised a chick at Slimbridge which made the national news and featured on the BBC’s The One Show.


Cranes have really captured the public imagination. Their large size and distinctive shape all help, but the real magic is when they display. We have all heard of dancing cranes, a description which has something of the exotic about it but this is now easily viewable in Britain. Pairs early in the season, around late February and March, will meet up and indulge in the most elaborate and fantastic dance. Initially, with huge plumed tails held erect, they parallel walk with each other. Their incredibly long legs and exaggerated strides bring to mind the arrival of the judging panel on Strictly Come Dancing. I can just imagine Bruno’s exuberance and Darcey’s comments about bending at the knee and keeping the grace and elegance as they start the dance.

Once the dance has started, all caution goes to the wind and wings help with the most outrageous of jumps and flicks. Elegance at times is lost but enthusiasm and energy amply make up for this. Craig would probably ‘tut tut’ but Darcey would almost certainly comment that as long as they really gave it a go and thoroughly enjoyed it, the dance was won. And the cranes do look as if they enjoy it – from the spectator’s view it is a glitter ball performance all the way!

Wildlife is returning to our shores almost annually. We often fear watching the news. It seems so doom-laden that we look eagerly for those stories of good fortune or happiness. The story of the crane is just that. A natural return that reflects our more enlightened attitude to the creatures that share our world and has been augmented by a successful crane project. The re-establishment of many of our lost wetlands and the creation of new ones means that our denizens of the wet and swampy places are generally fairing well. Little egrets colonised these wetlands 40 years ago, now great white egrets have joined them and the return of the stately crane is another superb addition to Britain’s fantastic bird life. A feelgood note on which to end the year!

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