The number of breeding cranes reached record highs in Scotland thanks to the restoration of moors and the protection of wetlands.
- The latest joint crane survey found that by 2020 there were seven pairs in Scotland and 64 pairs across the UK – both records.
- Scotland’s breeding cranes could be on the verge of a sharp rise
- Cranes became extinct in the UK nearly 400 years ago and did not start breeding again in Scotland until 2012 after returning to England in 1979. All of Scotland’s cranes nest in the northeast of Scotland.
- Protecting and restoring peat bogs and other wetlands in the area would not only benefit cranes, but also benefit other wildlife and store large amounts of carbon
The number of cranes in Scotland and the UK reached record highs of seven and 64 pairs respectively last year. The northeast of Scotland is home to all of the known birds of Scotland, which today make up more than 10% of the UK population. The total population in the UK is now estimated to be over 200 birds – also a new record.
Common Crane, Copyright Andy Adcock, from the Surfbirds Galleries
Last year’s Scottish numbers included two confirmed breeding pairs – who successfully raised three chicks, a record for a single year – as well as two likely breeding pairs, one possible breeding pair, two summer pairs, and another five immature birds believed to be them have spent the summer in north east Scotland. This is an increase from just four pairs in 2018/19, and the continued increase in summer bird numbers is believed to suggest that the Scottish population is on the verge of significant expansion.
In addition to the established sites that have been occupied most years, several new areas have attracted nesting cranes. A potential new breeding pair has been spotted in an area recently the focus of peatland restoration projects led by RSPB Scotland and NatureScot with support from the Scottish Water and Peatland Action Fund. And one of the confirmed breeding pairs, a chick fled a moorland that had been restored as part of an agri-environmental program.
RSPB Scotland believes that protecting and restoring additional peat bogs in North East Scotland would not only benefit cranes, but also provide tremendous benefits to other wildlife and help tackle the climate emergency by storing large amounts of carbon.
RSPB Scotland Senior Conservation Officer Hywel Maggs said: “We are very pleased that seven pairs of cranes were registered in North East Scotland in 2020. Due to lockdown restrictions under Covid-19, standard surveillance has not been possible and the exact number of pairs to breed in Scotland may never be fully known. However, thanks to reports from locals and farmers, we managed to create a picture of what happened.
“Watching the cranes return to Scotland was a real privilege. That they have chosen to settle in northeast Scotland and the number is growing shows the importance of some of the wilder landscapes here. However, in order for this expansion to continue, we need to ensure that the new pairs can nest safely. The cranes have already nested on recently restored bogs and newly created wetlands, but many of the potential nesting sites on bogs and other wetlands are threatened by drainage and disturbance. Restoring more of these key areas would bring a myriad of benefits, including creating the habitats that newly mated cranes look for and could ultimately result in many more of these elegant birds in the Scottish skies. “
Common crane are the largest bird in the UK, standing at 4 feet. They are legendary for their dances; complex displays with loops, pirouettes and bobs that take place every year between man and woman. These birds were quite common in Britain, but a combination of hunting and the decline of the wetlands led to their extinction in the 17th century.
Small numbers of wild cranes returned to Norfolk in 1979 and conservation groups have been working together to encourage more of them in the UK ever since. Cranes have now spread to other areas where habitat has been improved, including the RSPB’s Lakenheath and Nene Washes Reserves and Natural England’s Humberhead Peatlands.
In addition, the Great Crane Project – a partnership between RSPB, WWT, and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust funded by the Viridor Credits Environmental Company – began creating and improving existing habitats and hand-rearing young birds for release on the Somerset Levels in 2010 and Moors.
In Scotland, cranes were first bred in Aberdeenshire in 2012 after several years as a train visitor. The number stayed between one and four couples before rising to seven in 2020. During this time the birds in the north east of Scotland have successfully raised 12 chicks. Some of them are now approaching breeding age (five), which will add to the growing number.
Efforts to restore and protect bogs and wetlands have had impressive results over the past year with 64 pairs across the UK, producing 23 chicks. Over half of all cranes that have fled the UK since 1980 have fled since 2015. Most of the population is in southern England. The birds also breed in Scotland and are registered in Wales.
Damon Bridge, Chair of the UK Crane Working Group, said: “The return of cranes to the UK countryside shows how resilient nature can be when given the chance. If we are to continue this success, these locations that use and need cranes must be adequately protected. “
February 2nd marks World Wetlands Day, with the focus this year on wetlands and water. Wetlands provide protection from floods and storms, with up to 1.5 million gallons of flood water taking in each morning. Not only do these important locations help regulate the climate – bogs store twice as much carbon as forests, salt marshes, mangroves, and seagrass soils also contain large amounts of carbon – but they are also home to thousands of species, including cranes.