Saturday, 20 June 2020

Hope, Cranes and the Lockdown


Context is hugely influential in how we experience and think about nature and 30 odd years ago for me as a young birder that meant a frame of reference formed by the London parks where I had done most of birdwatching. On this occasion though I wasn’t in London, but with a friend who lived close to the Norfolk Broads. We were standing at the end of bitterly cold and snowy winters day on the edge of the marshes with the distinctive shape of Horsey Mill behind us. A family party of Whooper Swans had just flown past, Marsh Harriers were drifting over the large reedbed and then there they were bugling as they went by a pair of Cranes. To me back then these were mythical creatures, part of a tiny population of pioneering birds recolonising this wild eastern edge of England. Soon they disappeared from view as they dropped into their night-time roost site.

So when one evening this April, several decades later and in a different corner of Norfolk, two Common Cranes appeared over the rounded slope of the arable field I was walking past, not only did I feel the excitement I always experience when seeing these majestic birds, but they also triggered memories of that first sighting in the Broads and some of the work that I have been involved in over the years with RSPB to help create places where Cranes if they so choose can live and thrive.
Lockdown Cranes, Hunstanton

The Cranes as they flew past me high and heading north were unmistakeable large grey birds with long legs and necks topped by a red heads. I had thought that given the lockdown restrictions it would be many months until I got the chance to travel into Crane country, and it was this sense of them as an unexpected and short lived treat that made this experience all the more special. The birds were soon gone, my encounter with them lasting less than a minute, time to relish the moment and grab a couple of record shots with my camera. Then once they were out of sight I sent a text to a friend who lived half a mile away suggesting they get out in their garden in case they could see them from there. The message I got back was an unhappy one, pointing out that they had walked past the same field twenty minutes earlier and no they couldn’t see or hear the Cranes from their garden.

Cranes were once a widespread bird of the British Countryside, but like so much else of our native wildlife they disappeared from the landscape and our national consciousness centuries ago, victims of hunting and habitat loss. Then something amazing occurred they found their way back. Initially this happened slowly in remote marshland in the Norfolk Broads, where pioneering birds started their nesting attempts in the late 70’s on the Horsey estate. Slowly as this population grew in size, it started to expand its range across the Broads and then into the Fens where the first Cranes to nest in this famously flat landscape in four centuries chose to do so at the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen Nature Reserve.

Now Lakenheath Fen is an amazing place to visit hooching with life on a spring day. This is a man made landscape,  a small restoration of the once extensive wild and wet Fens that were drained for agriculture. Until they were drained the Fens were England’s great wetland, but the drainage not only sucked water out of the fens but also wildlife. Then back in the early 1990’s the RSPB’s East Anglian region team based in Norwich were looking to buy a piece of land in the Fens that could be used to create a new wetland nature reserve away from the coast and the threat of sea level rise, where species like Bitterns and Marsh Harriers could thrive. Never in their wildest dreams did they think that within a couple of decades Cranes would be nesting on the wetland they created. Following an appeal the RSPB were able to buy the land for this project at Lakenheath, land which at the time it was being used to grow carrots. To lead the task of turning 400 hectares of carrot fields into a wetland they appointed Norman Sills as warden. Norman had spent the previous couple of decades setting up the famous RSPB nature reserve at Titchwell Marsh on the north Norfolk coast and is a bit of a genius when it comes to taking a piece of land and creating a wildlife rich wetland.

Today you can take the train from Brandon past Lakenheath Fen, a journey across arable fields until you pass the reserve, a landscape of swaying reeds over which glide Marsh Harriers and if you are lucky you may catch a glimpse out of the train window of one of the reserves two pairs of Cranes.

In 2010 whilst the Cranes in eastern England, in the Fens and the Broads, were slowly building up their population a partnership called the Great Crane project made up of WWT, RSPB and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, with major funding from Viridor Credits Environmental came together to give our wild Crane population a boost in the west of England on the Somerset Levels. Here on England’s largest area of wetland and grazing marsh, a landscape criss-crossed by dikes and marshes dotted with grazing cattle over a five year period 93 Cranes were released into the wild by the project.

Helped by nature conservation organisations, landowners and other’s Cranes have done well in England in recent decades slowly reclaiming bits of the landscape their ancestors would once have occupied. A sort of long-legged giant Canary in a coalmine, whose presence is a symbol of where landscapes are wet enough and wild enough to have these birds back. They show where, as a society, we have been able to make space for nature, not just for Cranes but for the wild ecosystem’s and nature friendly farmland on which they rely.

Last year there were an amazing 56 pairs of Cranes nesting across the UK, and although their strongholds are still in the Broads, Fens and Somerset Levels birds can be found in other areas too. At least 85% of the UK population of Cranes are found on protected sites with a third of these on RSPB nature reserves, wild places where they can breed undisturbed safe away from people.

All of which means that at a time when because of lockdown my physical horizons had shrunk to the places I can easily reach on foot from my house. I was able to stand by the side of a non-descript arable field, on the edge of the small east coast town that I call home, with a pair of Cranes briefly adding some sparkle to my daily exercise walk and for the Cranes to remind me that when people come together we can bring nature back into our landscapes and our lives.

After the Cranes have flown out of sight over the wood to my north, I scribble the record in my notebook and remember the late American writer and explorer Peter Matthiessen’s book Birds of Heaven about his journeys around the globe in search of the worlds different Crane species. In this book he coins a lovely phrase to describe those of us who like him are smitten by these elegant and enigmatic birds and the wild places where they live, he called himself and us Crainiacs, I like that.

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