Posted 17th Jul 2018 by Peter Byrne
In some welcome conservation news, it has been predicted that the common crane, the UK's tallest bird, is here to stay - and we could have as many as 275 breeding pairs within 50 years
The birds recolonised the East of England in 1979 after they had been extinct in the UK for 400 years. Since then, conservationists have done what they can to help the small population, yet the birds breed slowly, and for the next two decades, their numbers remained low, putting them at risk of a second extinction.
The new population model found an important part of the growth was due to the new arrivals from continental Europe until 2010 - conservationists then started to import eggs and released fledgling cranes in the West of England as part of the Great Crane Project, which had reinforced the UK crane population with 90 new birds by 2014.
The model predicted the result is likely to give us an increase of up to 50 per cent in the number of breeding cranes that we can expect to see in the UK in the next 50 years.
Dr Andrea Soriano-Redondo led the research - she said: "Any small and newly established group is particularly vulnerable to random events such as an outbreak of disease. Knowing how many there are isn’t enough to predict whether they’re safe. Understanding the interplay between new arrivals, births and deaths enables us to judge the risks they face and predict their future with far more certainty".
Cranes only start breeding when they are around four years old and are able to live for over 30 years. However, even in a successful breeding season, they're only likely to rear one or two chicks.
Professor Stuart Bearhop of the University of Exeter said: "Of course it is obvious that adding birds will boost the population size, but what we find here is that these additional birds, as they establish themselves and become breeders, are a key element in the future persistence of this charismatic species in the UK".
In the past, wildlife translocations (where the eggs or young are moved from a healthy population to reinforce another elsewhere) such as the Great Crane Project have been characterised as an expensive and risky process.
Dr Geoff Hilton, WWT's Head of Conservation Science said: "Previously, cost and uncertainty have put some conservationists off these types of interventions. However, delving deeper into the numbers for cranes shows that, in combination with good habitat management and protection, we can greatly accelerate the recovery of some of our most special wildlife, allowing more people to enjoy them more quickly."
Now, the future of the cranes is looking far more positive thanks to the efforts of the UK Crane Working Group, the Great Crane Project and the efforts of other dedicated conservationists. Cranes are becoming a regular sight in the east of England, Somerset and Gloucestershire, with the next challenge being to ensure there is enough suitable wetland available for them to safely breed. Conservationists are now restoring whole landscapes, so areas of habitat are bigger, better and joined up, which will be benefit cranes and other species.
Andrew Stanbury, RSPB Conservation Scientist, said: "It is always great to get the opportunity to celebrate a real conservation success story and UK cranes is one of these. Thanks to a successful conservation partnership we are welcoming a charismatic species back in our countryside following a 400 year absence."
The predictions were made by scientists at the University of Exeter, WWT and RSPB and were published in Animal Conservation.
Image courtesy of Alec Taylor