For the first time since the Middle Ages, the secretive common cranes have bred in Scotland, with areas of farmland offering homes.
These graceful birds – known for their tall stature, loud trumpeting calls and elegant breeding displays – have successfully raised two chicks within the last two years in north east Scotland. This suggests that conditions could be right for more of the species to settle in Scotland.
Small but increasing numbers of the migratory birds, which spend their summers in northern Europe and winters in France and Spain, have passed through Britain in recent years with a small breeding population becoming established in Eastern England.
The recent nests north of the border are the first confirmed successful nests here for hundreds of years.
Historic records and place names indicate that cranes were once present in Scotland but died out centuries ago. Their disappearance was primarily due to hunting and to their popularity as a dish at medieval banquets. Habitat loss and a slow reproductive cycle may have been additional contributors.
The species, which favours large wetland areas such as lowland peat bogs with an abundance of pools, appears to be benefitting from farming operations in the area which provide invertebrates, grains and other food and the right conditions to breed and successfully raise chicks.
Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland says: ‘We are stunned and delighted to see that common cranes have bred successfully in Scotland. These charming, elegant birds have a strong place in our myths and history and are a delight to see, particularly during the breeding season with their ‘dancing’ displays.
‘They undertake regular migrations and small numbers have turned up on the east coast of Scotland in recent years, raising hopes of a re-colonisation. Last year the pair reared one chick- followed by a second chick in 2013.
‘Thanks to the co-operation of farmers in the area, the conditions appear to be right for cranes to take up residence and it is possible that more will choose to re-establish themselves in the country in future.
‘We have been working with local farmers, landowners and the community to monitor these fantastic birds.
‘Despite their size and flamboyant breeding displays, cranes are secretive birds and are very sensitive to disturbance.
We ask that they be given space and peace so they may establish a breeding population in Scotland.’
To minimise the risk of disturbance, the exact location of the nest site will not be revealed.
Recolonisation by cranes in other parts of the UK began in Norfolk during the late 1970s. Since then, numbers have increased and new sites have been colonised. The UK breeding population stood at 17 pairs in 2011.
In addition to natural re-colonisation, a re-introduction project began in 2010 on the Somerset levels. The project is a partnership between RSPB, WWT, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Viridor credits.
RSPB’s Loch of Strathbeg nature reserve, a major coastal wetland near Fraserburgh, is visited by cranes on spring migration and offers the best opportunity to see them doing their ‘dancing’ displays