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Success story for Britain's tallest bird, the common crane

Cranes are making a comeback in Somerset thanks to the efforts of conservationists. Credit: ITV West Country

The UK's tallest bird, which was extinct here for hundreds of years, is successfully breeding again in the South West and scientists say it's now back for good.

The Great Crane Project has released dozens of hand-reared birds onto the Somerset Levels over the past few years and now they are rearing chicks of their own.

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Cranes are four feet tall when fully grown and, hundreds of years ago, they used to be widespread in the UK when there were more wetlands and fewer humans. The birds were hunted to extinction around the 1600s but now they're back and breeding successfully on the Somerset Levels.

A tiny crane chick at Slimbridge - the marbles stop it drowning in the water bowl. Credit: ITV West Country

93 birds were hand-reared in captivity at Slimbridge Wetland Centre and released into the wild on the Somerset Levels as part of the Great Crane Project. It was started in 2010 and this year looks like it's going to be the best year yet, with 13 pairs of birds breeding.

It is incredible to see birds we've been involved with hand rearing and releasing in the early years on the project now rearing chicks of their own and doing that all themselves.

It's quite incredible really to have those second generation birds and that number is slowly building. We had 11 over the last few years and this year it looks like we might be on track to have another six or so. There are a few still to fledge so it's looking really good.

– Damon Bridge, Conservation officer, RSPB

There's a colony of cranes in Norfolk too, which has been growing since the 1970s when wild birds came over from Europe. The latest population model predicts we could have as many as 275 breeding pairs across the country in 50 years time, bolstered by the Somerset project.

This family of cranes are here thanks to the hard work of the Great Crane Project. Credit: ITV West Country

Dr Andrea Soriano led the research at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus, as part of her PhD. She says it looks like the crane is here to stay:

"It takes a while for them to start breeding so the first few years were a little bit risky because we didn't know how it was going to go but now they are getting older they are gaining experience and we can see that actually they are doing quite well. It's a very small population. It's going to be a slow process. It's not going to be a common feature in the UK in the next ten years but hopefully it's going to be more common than it is right now".

As numbers grow, the continuing success of the Great Crane Project is good news for tourism too. Many people visit the reserves on the Somerset Levels primarily to see these extraordinary birds.

One of their first questions is 'Where can I see the cranes?'. There's an incredible amount of other wildlife out there but the cranes have something special about them.

– Damon Bridge