Monday 21 November 2016

Cranes and Hickling Broad

Common Crane Photo: David Tipling
It would be stretching it a bit to claim that that the cranes of east Norfolk are grateful that NWT has launched an appeal to buy the freehold of Hickling nature reserve, but they should be. Hickling played a role in the return of the crane to the UK as a breeding bird, and it continues to be a key site for them.

Two cranes came to Hickling on 13th September 1979. It was these that prompted a phone call about the “Biggest bloody herons” that a local farmer had ever seen. Taking that call was John Buxton of the neighbouring Horsey Estate, which is where the cranes stayed, first attempted to nest in 1981 and raised the first crane chick in the UK for 400 years. Once a tightly held secret, this is now a well-known part of the cranes history, told by John and me in the book The Norfolk Cranes’ Story.  

It would, perhaps, have been a neater story if the cranes had bred at Hickling rather than Horsey. It was from Hickling that there is a written record of a payment for a ‘young Pyper crane’ in 1543. That is generally interpreted as the only – and last – indication of cranes breeding in East Anglia, until their recent return. That full circle was not completed until 2003 when cranes nested at Hickling again. They have been there ever since and Hickling remains the place to go to if you want to see cranes, not least as Horsey is a private estate. 

Hickling Broad by Richard Osbourne
There is a Hickling anecdote that didn’t make it into the book. Secrecy may have been the best way to safeguard the cranes in the early years, but they could be tricky birds to hide. This dilemma was illustrated by the visit of a group of conservation students to Hickling nature reserve in about 1985. Richard Hobbs, then the Trust’s Conservation Officer, was with them. John Buxton from Horsey was also there, with Christopher Cadbury from Hickling who was a generous benefactor of Hickling reserve. One of the students heard the sound of calling cranes coming from nearby Horsey. He pointed them out with some confidence as he came from Sweden and heard cranes there regularly. John and Christopher simply denied it, and the student looked perplexed. Richard, a leading figure in the local conservation scene, knew about the cranes’ return to Horsey, and after John and Christopher departed confirmed to the student that he was right.

I don’t get to Hickling as often as I should, but the place and its wildlife have a knack for creating memorable experiences. Inspiring your family to take up your interest in wildlife isn’t always easy. At last it seems to have worked with grown-up son Jim, and last winter we made that afternoon visit that you’ve probably done too, to Stubb Mill. The distant harriers over the marshes were great, and there was a grey blob that through a telescope was just about recognisable as a crane. But it was on the walk back to the car park that we had a proper crane encounter. Three came over in the half light, calling as they flew. I could almost hear the penny drop – now I get it about Dad and cranes.

I returned to Hickling in January, this time to meet the team planning a BBC Countryfile programme from east Norfolk. John Blackburn from NWT Hickling was there, and it was enjoyable to share the recce visit, including the sights and sounds of cranes on a gloomy day. The sun came out for filming in the following week, adding to a wonderful opportunity to showcase both the cranes’ story and Hickling.

Chris Durdin usually blogs about NWT ThorpeMarshes  but is also co-author of The Norfolk Cranes’ Story. More about the book on


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  1. It would, perhaps, have been a neater story if the cranes had bred at Hickling rather than Horsey. Cheap Manchester Airport parking