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How the crane population in Norfolk recovered and grew

A common crane at NWT Hickling Broad. Photo: Elizabeth Dack
A common crane at NWT Hickling Broad. Photo: Elizabeth Dack

I’m writing this on publication day of the latest State of Nature report. This is a hugely important document, for many reasons. For starters, no other country on Earth has such extensive understanding of its biodiversity. It is credit to fifty years of UK naturalists, scientists and conservationists that it exists. And it is credit to our conservation charities and institutions – some 60 of which contributed – that its publication has been possible.

So much for the good. The rest is lamentable. The UK, the report finds, is one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth. In spite of every effort by conservation NGOs, visionary private landowners, and everyone who supports them, nature and the environment continue to be degraded in our green and pleasant land.

Great British Life: A house sparrow hovering and catching food at Sea Palling. Photo: Elizabeth DackA house sparrow hovering and catching food at Sea Palling. Photo: Elizabeth Dack

Species studied have, on average, declined in abundance by 19% since 1970, State of Nature tells us. Over the same period, the distributions of 54% of flowering plants have decreased. 16% of our species are now at risk of extinction in the UK. Read those statistics again but, this time, visualise species that you love – the skylarks whose joyous songs entwine your dog walks, the early forget-me-nots whose shy blooms promise spring is coming, the wild hordes of pink-footed geese which haunt our winter skies – and imagine a none-too-distant future in which these touchstones of our changing seasons have gone. Never to return. Because of us.

I am old enough – by the time this article goes to print I will have turned 50 – to remember many species which have gone. Nightingales were always scarce in north Norfolk in my youth, but they brought rapture to every spring. Now they have gone. Wood warblers still bred in places along the Cromer Ridge, their bright songs cutting through the sharp green foliage of late April. Now they have gone. Spotted flycatchers bred every year in my parents’ garden, looping between old trees. They too have gone. Turtle doves visited the garden. If their decline continues as predicted, soon they will be nationally extinct. Willow tits were in the village, where a stand of poplars had been left unharvested. They have gone from all of Norfolk now. Just one last male sang this year, found by a friend who has witnessed – and tried to stall – their agonising decline: bird by bird and silent wood by silent wood.

When will it be enough? When will we finally wake to the fact that we are biodiversity too: that our every breath, every mouthful of food we eat, our every sip of water, every fibre with which we clothe ourselves comes – directly or indirectly – from the natural world? When will we realise that our economy, our education, our priceless NHS, and our mental wellbeing all depend on a healthy, functioning environment? When will we be so angry that we finally adapt our lifestyles, vote for the good of biodiversity and our environment, and demand of our short-term politicians that they put our long-term societal interests at the heart of government? Will the disappearance of the hedgehog be enough? Unlikely: we like to say we love them, but all most of us ever see of a hedgehog is a flat corpse on a road. Will the eventual loss of the house sparrow from parks and gardens be enough? Seems unlikely too: we have driven nightingales, turtle doves, willow tits, spotted flycatchers and wood warblers from the landscape with barely a regretful thought. Why would house sparrows be different?

Another outcome is possible; though, as in all good stories, the path to reach it will be arduous and long. Resistance will come from every quarter, especially from those whose short-term gains are threatened by the delivery of long-term good for all. But this is the fight of our lives – the fight of human history – and we must stay strong. For a different outcome is possible. And essential.

Great British Life: Cranes in flight at NWT Hickling Broad. Photo: Elizabeth DackCranes in flight at NWT Hickling Broad. Photo: Elizabeth Dack

Yesterday, on the eve of publication of State of Nature, I was interviewed by ITV News at NWT Hickling Broad. I had been asked for a story which bucked the trend: a species which – despite the catastrophic erosion of biodiversity and our shared environment – was recovering.

I chose the crane because there can hardly be a better example of what we need to do, of how we need to work together to turn things round. Hunted to extinction in the Tudor period, these magnificent birds were absent from the UK for 400 years. When the first pair returned to the UK in September 1979, they chose Hickling. They soon moved next door, to the private estate of the late John Buxton, who became the guardian of British cranes. Monitored and kept secret by the RSPB, Natural England’s predecessor, Norfolk Naturalists Trust (as we then were) and by John himself, the crane pair raised their first chick on his land in 1982. Slowly, over decades, nest by nest and chick by toffee-coloured chick, the population grew. When I was cutting my teeth as a naturalist in the early 1990s, the UK flock still counted fewer than a dozen birds.

Now there are more than 70 pairs, raising between them up to 40 chicks a year. The reasons for their success are many. Wetlands – such as the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen and our own NWT Wissey Wetlands and Potter Heigham Marshes – have been recreated for them and for other species. A second population has been painstakingly introduced in Somerset and Gloucestershire, with birds from the two populations now mixing. And cranes have become ambassadors for wilder wetlands, symbols in people’s hearts of what we can achieve: with ambition, when we work together across sectors, when the goal is more important than the obstacles along the journey.

If we can restore the crane to the UK’s wetlands, we can restore all our biodiversity. But to do so we must – with one loud, united voice – tell our leaders, our elected representatives, businesses, retailers, industry and the media that we will not stand for nature-depleted landscapes, we will not tolerate a shattered climate.

This is the fight of our lives. But together – inspired by cranes – we’re mighty.



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