Monday 20 January 2020

Cranes in the UK – a brief history

It’s 40 years since cranes returned to the Broads in Norfolk having been absent as breeding bird from the UK for some 400 years. Chris Durdin, co-author of The Norfolk Cranes’ Story, tells their story.

This is part 3 of four blogs. The full story is in The Norfolk Cranes’ Story book, which recently came out in paperback. See for how to buy a copy.

Cranes in the UK – a brief history
The return of cranes to Norfolk is a recolonisation – a distinction worth making in view of the reintroduction project in the West Country. But exactly how many cranes used to breed in Britain and Ireland is far from clear – hardly surprising as they may not have bred since the 17th century.

The only proof of breeding in the literature is an account of a payment for a ‘young Pyper crane’ at Hickling in 1543.

Nearly 300 place names start with Cran, Carn or Tran, from the Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon names for crane. That suggests cranes were common and widespread, though some of these place names might be linked to grey herons, still confused with cranes (like the ‘biggest bloody herons’) today. Or they may have been gathering places for non-breeding flocks of cranes.

Illustrations in manuscripts and records of cranes served at feasts provide further evidence, and draw distinctions between cranes and herons. References to cranes on Christmas menus and those shot on the Le Strange Estate at Hunstanton point to winter flocks or migrants.

There can be little doubt that shooting combined with large-scale drainage in the Fens and elsewhere drove the cranes to extinction in the British Isles.

A crane at Horsey, Norfolk, is harassed by an avocet (John Buxton). Header: crane silhouettes (Nick Upton).
To be continued.

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