The RSPB reserve at Lakenheath is turning out to be something of a triumph. Just 11 years ago much of the reserve was carrot fields, bordered by the River Little Ouse and a series of washes, where passage waders and dancing terns could be seen. The reedbeds that now cover much of the reserve show what can be done with careful planning and control of water levels. It was hoped that the reedbeds would attract breeding bitterns but it is another bird that has stolen the limelight by choosing Lakenheath as its home. This is the common crane.
Cranes are truly majestic, with a seven foot wingspan and elegant courtship display, these imperial beauties look oddly out of place when seen feeding on our farmland. Although there is little, if any, evidence to prove that cranes bred in Norfolk before 1981, it is likely that they did. Of the 300 or so place names in Britain associated with the crane only two are in Norfolk but there are many others concentrated in the Fenland of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. This area would have been used by cranes from more northerly breeding populations, passing through south in autumn or wintering here. It may also have supported breeding and records do show that crane featured prominently on the menu at important banquets up until about 1600. After this time the numbers fell dramatically and from then right through until the 1970s, cranes were very rarely encountered in England. Then, on 15th September 1979, two cranes appeared at Hickling. These overwintered and then moved up to the North Norfolk coast the following spring; attempting their spring migration, but clearly deterred by the size of the North Sea crossing, the birds returned to Broadland. Over the following years other birds joined them and then finally, in 1982, they bred successfully. Since then, numbers have increased very slowly with occasional nesting attempts producing young.
This all makes the arrival of breeding birds at Lakenheath that much more unexpected. Earlier in the year there were seven individuals present, arranged in what appeared to be three pairs with a lone young male attempting to muscle in on already established bonds. He has since disappeared, possibly along with one of the other pairs, but two pairs of these wonderful birds appear to be in residence on the reserve, typically keeping a low profile but proclaiming their presence through their loud bugle calls at dawn and dusk. With more birds now using a westerly migration route that brings them into East Anglia from Fennoscandia, it is likely that the number of cranes will continue to grow and we will increasingly hear their echoing calls across our reedbeds.