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Crane History

Crane illustration. Credit: Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)
Credit: Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)

It’s difficult, now, to visualise how astonishingly widespread these birds were in our countryside hundreds of years ago but by the start of the 17th Century, they had ceased to breed in the UK.

It is believed that this loss was a result of the draining of extensive areas of wetland and persecution through hunting for food. 

Cranes may well be birds lost from memory, but they are certainly preserved in folklore and history.  There is a long history of cranes in Britain; they feature on illustrated manuscripts, and appeared on the menu for Henry III’s Christmas feast at York in 1251.

Placenames in the UK related to cranes. Credit: WWT
Placenames in the UK related to cranes. Credit: WWT

There are literally hundreds of place names, like Cranford, Cranbrook and Cranmore where the element ‘cran’ signifies a locality known for cranes.  

Perhaps theres is a village or site named after cranes near you?  

Similarly, in the North of the UK, the old Norse place name element ‘tran’ carries the same message.
Cranberries and 14 different species of cranesbill are all linguistic signposts to a forgotten wealth of wildlife.

There are also preserved crane remains in sites throught out the UK with remains of young and adult birds showing signs of butchery being found at the Iron Age ‘Glastonbury lake village’ in Somerset.

Crane footprints are also preserved in the mud of the Severn Estuary, dating from the Holocene Epoch....so they have been around in the UK for quite a while!  

 Hunting of cranes was the preserve of the nobility, with a tax put on the collection of their eggs from the marshes to ensure that they remained a viable quarry. 

During a feast to enthrone Archbishop Neville in the fifteenth century, the guests consumed and incredible 204 cranes, and at Henry III’s Christmas meal in 1251 he and his guests consumed an impressive 115 cranes - along with a veritable bevy of bitterns, ducks and other unfortunate wildlife.   

To find out more about their return, go to the Cranes in the UK section and keep up to date with the latest project news.

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