Back after 400 years, the majestic crane

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The great dancing birds of myth and legend are to be brought back to Britain. Cranes, long-legged, long-necked and majestic, are to be the subject of a major reintroduction project aimed at establishing a new British breeding population.

The huge, blue-grey wetland birds died out in Britain about 1600. They were absent until a pair turned up in the Norfolk Broads in 1979. A tiny breeding flock clings on precariously.

But now conservation bodies want to reintroduce cranes in a much more formal and organised way so that a much more substantial breeding population can be permanently secured.

The birdsperform one of the most remarkable of all bird mating rituals - a "dance" display in which, sometimes in large numbers, they flap their wings, shake their plumage, raise and bow their heads and leap into the air.

The bird intended for Britain is the common or European crane, Grus grus, which breeds in eastern Europe and Scandinavia and migrates south for the winter to Spain, Portugal and north Africa.

The scheme - which is called the Great Crane Project, and was announced yesterday at the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water in the east Midlands - would involve releasing young birds at a still-to-be-selected site. It is being organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and the cereal firm Jordans, the project's founding sponsor.

The consortium is looking at suitable sites across Britain for the release of the first young birds in two or three years' time. One potential problem is migration. Would the cranes have to be taught a migratory flightpath of their own? This was done in the US, with cranes being taught to follow microlight aircraft.

But they may not need to migrate. This has been the case with the East Anglian population. It has never numbered more than four breeding pairs, and no more than four chicks have been raised in one year, but it seems to be growing with the addition of wild birds who get lost in Britain in the winter. The maximum count last winter was 34.

Dr Baz Hughes, head of species conservation for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, said: "Cranes are big, charismatic, noisy birds and fantastic ambassadors for wetland conservation."

"We want to be able to replace some of that fantastic wildlife previous generations could enjoy," said Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's conservation director.