Population of UK’s tallest bird hits record-breaking high

Friday 02 February, 2024

  • Survey results show 2023 was another successful year for the Common Crane, with a record 80 pairs confirmed in the UK and 36 young known to have fledged.
  • Driven to extinction in the UK during the 16th century, the population is now at its highest level since the species returned in 1979.
  • Conservation efforts to restore and protect Cranes’ favoured wetland habitats can also help protect communities from flooding and lock away carbon to combat climate change.

The population of Common Cranes, the UK’s tallest bird, has hit a record high according to the latest breeding survey results.

Figures released today, World Wetlands Day [1], reveal there were at least 80 pairs of Cranes across the UK in 2023. It is the highest number since the species returned to UK shores in 1979 after being driven to extinction in the 16th century through hunting and the loss of their favoured wetland habitats.

The species’ comeback began with the arrival of just a small number of wild birds to the Norfolk Broads. The population has continued to slowly spread, with 2023’s results building on the previous high of 72 pairs in 2021. The latest figures show up to 69 pairs attempted to breed last year and a total of 36 Crane chicks successfully fledged. The total UK population is now believed to be in excess of 250 birds.

Alongside a reintroduction project where hand-reared Cranes were released on the Somerset Levels and Moors, conservation efforts to restore and protect the UK’s wetlands have been key to turning around the birds’ fortunes. Nature reserves have played a vital role and over 80% of the breeding population are now found on protected sites, including over a third on RSPB nature reserves alone.

Damon Bridge, chair of the UK Crane Working Group, said: “The conservation and protection of UK wetlands is helping our Crane population go from strength-to-strength. But that’s only part of the story. Wetlands support countless other magnificent species, lock-away carbon to fight climate change and can hold back water to help reduce the impact of flooding.

“The continued success of these amazing birds is showing us that conservation action works. We need to build on this foundation by safeguarding protected sites and creating larger, better-connected wetland areas across the UK to fully reap the benefits this vital habitat can provide for nature and people.”

Wetland areas provide refuge to huge numbers of native and migrant birds, including Cranes. Last year wetlands on the English east coast, spanning from the Humber to the Thames, were added to the UK’s list of potential World Heritage Sites due to their ‘outstanding universal value’.

Wetlands are also capable of storing vast quantities of carbon, and their value in helping to combat and lessen the effects of climate change is becoming ever more important. Recent flooding across the UK and the expectation of more frequent heavy rainfall events due to climate change has highlighted another key role of wetlands – their ability to hold onto water, slow down its flow and help reduce the impact of extreme weather on people and property.

Andrew Stanbury, RSPB conservation scientist, said: “Recent announcements from the UK government to spend £16m rewetting and restoring peatlands across England, along with a second round of the Landscape Recovery project to support net zero goals, protected sites and wildlife-rich habitats are good news for our Cranes and countless other species. Investing in nature’s recovery benefits everyone. We must now go further and move faster, scaling up efforts to restore protected sites and landscapes by 2030 if wildlife and people are to thrive.”

Stephen Prowse, the National Trust’s Area Ranger for Horsey and Heigham Holmes, said: “The Horsey Estate has a very special connection to cranes, as it was here that the first wild cranes became re-established in this country in 1979. Thanks to the concerted efforts of people like the Horsey Estate, the RSPB and the National Trust, cranes can be seen at different sites not only in the Norfolk Broads, but across the country. Cranes are a real conservation success story and a testimony to the historic and ongoing importance of the Broads as a nationally important haven for wildlife.”

John Blackburn, Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserves Manager, said: “The continued comeback of our cranes provides heartening evidence that by working in partnership across the landscape, and with the right governmental support, we can combat the biodiversity crisis we currently face. In addition to cranes breeding on a number of our sites in the Norfolk Broads each year, nothing rivals the sight of dozens of these majestic birds coming in to roost at twilight - a real wildlife spectacle that visitors can enjoy at our Hickling Broad nature reserve each winter.”


Cranes: one of our most majestic birds

Standing at a height of 1.2m (4ft), the UK’s tallest bird is also known for its graceful mating dance. When a pair comes together to start the breeding season, they reinforce their bond with an energetic dance of head bobbing, bows and pirouettes.

Cranes are naturally secretive during this period and can be difficult to spot, however they can be seen more easily at other times of year on a number of RSPB nature reserves including West

Sedgemoor, Lakenheath Fen, Nene Washes and Loch of Strathbeg, Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad and Marshes nature reserve, and the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s Willow Tree Fen nature reserve.

Header image by Nick Upton

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