Britain's common crane population has reason to celebrate this World Wetlands Day as a recent survey shows a record number of breeding pairs thriving in the region's remaining moors and floodplains. These stately birds, which vanished completely from the UK in the 1600s, have been making a steady comeback in recent years thanks to concerted efforts from conservationists and volunteers. The UK now plays hosts to at least 64 pairs of breeding cranes according to last year's survey, and experts estimate that the total population is likely to be more than 200 individuals.

A tussle between two common cranes.

The cranes are a welcome addition to the area's array of avian diversity. Standing at over 100 centimetres tall their slate-grey bodies are decorated with an explosion of darkened tail coverts that give the appearance of a bushy tail. Their heads are capped with a bold red crown, and just below this, a striking white line curves from behind their eyes down to the base of their necks. All of this grandeur truly comes to life during mating season when the males perform an extravagant dance that involves throwing their heads back as if laughing uproariously all while bellowing a trumpet-like call.

But some 400 years ago, the crane's distinctive bugle fell silent on the British wetlands. The birds were driven to local extinction as a result of habitat destruction and hunting (a staggering 204 cranes were supposedly roasted and served at a banquet held in 1465 for the Archbishop of York). The crane's remarkable comeback began when a few birds naturally returned to Norfolk in 1979. Slowly, the numbers began to rise while conservationists worked on peatland restoration projects and stronger protections for British wetlands. Then, in 2009, the Great Crane Project was founded with the goal of establishing an all-new breeding population through the rearing and releasing of around 100 cranes over a five-year period.

A "crane school" was created where chicks could be hand-reared for release into the wild – a process that required staff wear full-body crane suits when feeding the youngsters to minimise the risk of imprinting. Between 2010 and 2014, 93 birds were released in Britain helping boost population numbers (much to the excitement of local bird-watchers). Records of the released birds – many of which were given wonderfully English names like Mildred and Olly – are available on the Great Crane Project website.

"The return of cranes to the British landscape shows just how resilient nature can be when given the chance," Damon Bridge, chairman of the UK Crane Working Group, told The Guardian. "If we want to see this success continue then these sites that cranes use and need must get adequate protection." 

Encouragingly for conservationists, the new survey indicates that at least 85% of the current breeding population have taken up residence in protected nature reserves. Wetland environments are not only vital for cranes, they support a wealth of other wildlife, as well as filtering water, providing protection from storms and floods, and storing carbon. 

Find out more about the importance of wetlands here.