Model predicts population of UK’s tallest bird could double within 50 years after its return to the east of England following a 400-year absence

Common cranes which recolonised eastern England less than 40 years ago after a 400-year absence are now here to stay, research has found.

There could be as many as 275 breeding pairs of the UK’s tallest bird within 50 years, scientists at the University of Exeter, the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) predict.

Cranes were lost from the UK as a breeding bird in the 16th century as a result of hunting and the drainage of large areas of wetlands, but some returned to the east of England in 1979.

Common crane Mark Hughes/WWT/PA

Photograph credit Mark Hughes/WWT/PA

Conservationists supported the small population, but they breed slowly and their numbers remained low over the next two decades, leaving the population at risk of disappearing again if hit by problems such as disease.

A new population model, published in a paper in the journal Animal Conservation, found that an important part of the growth in numbers until 2010 were new arrivals from continental Europe.

Then conservationists began to import eggs and release fledgling cranes in the west of England as part of the “great crane project”, which by 2014 had boosted the UK population with 90 new birds.

As a result, the population model predicts a 50% increase in the number of breeding cranes, from 178 now to 275 pairs in the UK in 50 years’ time.

The next challenge to help cranes, which are now a regular sight in the east of England, Somerset and Gloucestershire, is to ensure enough wetlands for them to breed safely, experts said, urging authorities to restore whole landscapes so there are more, bigger, better quality and joined-up areas of habitat for wildlife.

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