Conserving Cranes and Curlew on the Somerset Levels

Talk by Richard Archer, Senior Conservation Officer RSPB South West at the Plymouth Branch AGM 11th. November, 2019

The Somerset Levels RSPB stewardship encompass thirty thousand hectares of land. With a big catchment and high rainfall it is a habitat largely shaped by man over a history going back before the Doomsday Book. Ancient husbandry produced a habitat that supported a wide range of flora, fauna and aviculture but over time changes to land management have taken toll on wildlife and, changes to agricultural practices, since WW II in particular, have seen rapid declines in many species of birdlife.

Richard Archer presented the case for carefully considered and scientific intervention following a baseline survey of key bird species in the mid-1970s. He clearly showed how sympathetic action has succeeded in bringing back numbers of breeding four key wader species; Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank and Snipe as well as helping the Levels to be a significant area for Heron species and the reintroduction of a formerly extinct species – Common Crane.

Several key factors were outlined as crucial to breeding success of these species; hydrology, the careful management of water levels across the levels; grassland flora; livestock movement; and predation prevention measures. This of course required cooperation with farmers and landowners and an education and information programme as well as fund raising and lobbying of government agencies. The RSPB has worked hard to achieve success in these areas and continues to strive toward further improvement.

The reintroduction of Common Crane has become emblematic for conservation on the Levels and nationally, providing a powerful vehicle for promotion of conservation action across the area and making a national impact. The reintroduction process known as “The great Cranes project” started in 2000 when a search for a suitable site was started. The Levels was put forward as a good site with at least some historical claim to Crane populations. This combined with favourable habitat, existing RSPB infrastructure and proven management skills led to the Levels being nominated as a prime reintroduction site. The programme started with obtaining Common Crane eggs from Germany with officers from RSPB working closely with German ecologists and WWT staff at Slimbridge. Eggs were brought to Slimbridge at a defined stage of their natural incubation and were finally hatched and chicks reared in as near to natural conditions as possible before a their trip to the Levels. Here the 12 week old chicks were brought on and, ultimately, a “soft release” out into the wild Levels was made. In 2014 the first naturally born Crane chick was recorded marking a return to the Levels after 400 years absence for this iconic species.

Now, with a population of around 90 birds, the population is fast approaching sustainable status and it is now possible to see these majestic birds at several sites on the Levels. The Great Cranes Project is a real success story and a signpost to future conservation projects.

John Lloyd.