The Norfolk Cranes' Story

Cranes on their wintering grounds in Extremadura, Spain

Whether common cranes were ever actually common in East Anglia is open to debate. Circumstantial historic evidence indicates they may well have been a widespread and abundant breeder in our marshes and fens in centuries past, or used the region as a wintering ground, but there is little concrete proof in support of this. The documentary evidence is sparse with one allusion to a ‘Pyper crane’ being contained in a document dating from 1543, but this could just as easily have been a colloquial reference to a grey heron or some such. There are other references to cranes featured as illustrations in manuscripts or listed as components of medieval feasting. But if it was once to be encountered gracefully striding across our soils, its evocative bugling cries echoing across our flatlands we will never know for sure.  What we do know and can justly be proud of is that common cranes did take up residence in Norfolk in 1979 and have been here ever since, slowly building a breeding pool that when joined by non-breeders and migrants now number some 70 birds county wide.

The story of their return began in September 1979 with a phone call received by John Buxton of Horsey Hall from an estate farmer who excitedly reported he had just seen “the biggest bloody herons”. The birds turned out to be a pair of common cranes that were joined by a third bird later that autumn. This trio spent the winter in the Hickling/Horsey area of Broadland feeding in potato fields and amongst stubble.  These birds left the area the following April no doubt attempting to return to their native Scandinavia to breed. Perhaps deterred by the long sea crossing they abandoned this migration attempt and returned to Norfolk a couple of weeks later. There they remained with the original pair eventually settling down to breed during the spring of 1981. That pioneering breeding attempt proved unsuccessful, but the birds tried again the following year with greater success, rearing a single chick to the fledging stage. This represented the first known common crane to be reared in the UK since perhaps the 16th century marking a red-letter day for all concerned with the bird’s welfare and conservation.

Being large and obvious ground nesting birds, crane nests and chicks are very vulnerable and open to predation. The recolonising birds had a tough time of it over the next twenty years, but eventually reached the stage where numbers outgrew their original Horsey home. In 2003 they began nesting at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at neighbouring Hickling and in 2007 began to spread further afield when a pair nested at the RSPB’s reserve at Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk following an influx of Continental migrants into the region. Since then the birds have spread naturally as far afield as Yorkshire and Scotland.

During the period 2010-2014 the RSPB together with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust released around 90 captive bred cranes into the Somerset Levels. The Great Crane Project had the purpose of securing the future of common cranes within the UK and was greeted with publicity and media attention, in my view somewhat detracting from the decades of dedicated conservation effort that took place here in East Anglia to nurture a viable natural recolonization.

It would be quite wrong to forget the magnificent efforts of John Buxton, his estate employees, RSPB staff and volunteers who acted as guardians for this vulnerable species throughout the critical first few years of its precarious tenure. Without the efforts of this dedicated band it is doubtful whether the cranes would have been left undisturbed by egg collectors, farming activity and well-intentioned but ultimately disruptive sightseers.

Happily, the full story of how common cranes came to once again reside in eastern England has been documented in a marvellous book entitled ‘The Norfolk Cranes’ Story’ co-authored by Chris Durdin, a Norwich based conservationist who runs Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays. Chris worked with John Buxton to fully detail the trials and tribulations of these enigmatic birds as they slowly regained their place as a UK breeding species. I can thoroughly recommend the work which was first published in 2011 and is now available in paperback. It will have special resonance with anyone who loves the wild open spaces of East Anglia.  If you feel in need of an uplifting read visit for details of how to buy your copy.

This winter several birds have been regularly feeding in the stubble fields next to the A1064 at Billockby near Acle. They are wary birds though and will not allow close approach. One of the best places to see common cranes during winter is from the Stubb Mill raptor watchpoint at Hickling. The birds often come to roost amongst the wide expanse of marsh and fen together with many marsh harriers and occasional hen harriers. It is an amazing sight and we should all be proud that we are, once again, able to witness these majestic birds sweeping across wide East Anglian skies. 

Wintering Cranes. Extremadura, Spain