A flock of cranes have been successfully released into the British countryside for the first time in 400 years after being hand-reared by carers – dressed in bird COSTUMES.
The 21 birds were bred in captivity and raised at ‘crane school’ where they were taught how to forage for food, swim, socialise and protect themselves from predators.
Cranes disappeared from the UK in the 1600s and the last known reference to them in the wild was in an Act of Parliament in 1583.
But in April this year a clutch of eggs were shipped in from Germany and hatched at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire.
The common cranes were put through a ‘school’ with handlers who tried to recreate a realistic upbringing by disguising themselves as parent birds in costumes.
They were also taught to avoid predators in a training programme where they were given contact with a dog – which looks like a FOX.
The birds have now been released into a temporary release enclosure at a secret location on the Somerset Levels before being allowed into the wild next month.
The scheme – named the Great Crane Project – was a joint venture between the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust.
Nigel Jarrett, head of conservation breeding at the WWT, said staff had to wear crane costumes so the birds did not become ”imprinted on humans”.
He said: ”We’ll be doing what is known as a soft release – meaning we do it very carefully and slowly so the birds hardly notice it’s happening.
”We have to be comfortable that the birds are feeding for themselves. Until now they have been living charmed lives where they have everything delivered.
”Once they are free they’ll become natural foragers. The real measure of success will be nesting – when they produce their own babies.”
Nigel said they used a ”fox-like dog” called a Nova Scotia Duck Trolling Retriever to make them aware of their most dangerous predator.
He added: ”The way we go about training them is to play the alarm calls of adult cranes while walking the dog in the enclosure.
”A lot of this is instinct, particularly the calls they make, they just need to know how to respond.”
The cranes have been taught to seek out food in the countryside, such as grasshoppers, crickets and grass seeds.
The 21 birds have also been fitted with tracking devices including small GPS satellite tracking backpacks, so they can be monitored.
Mr Jarrett said another clutch of eggs will be imported next year and the process will begin again. The project hopes to have released 100 birds by 2015.
Common cranes are large, long-legged and long-necked birds which can be found on all continents except Antarctica and South America.
They are opportunistic feeders that change their diet according to the season and their own nutrient requirements.
Cranes eat a range of items from suitably sized small rodents, fish, amphibians, and insects, to grain, berries, and plants.
They construct platform nests in shallow water, and typically lay two eggs at a time. Both parents help to rear the young, which remain with them until the next breeding season.