Spring has well and truly arrived at RSPB’s Swell Wood Nature Reserve. Its oaks, ashes, hazelnuts and hornbeams are just beginning to bloom. Beneath them, among the bright yellow wood anemones and celandines that carpet the ground, the first bluebells of this year are in bloom. Birdsong is everywhere: the two-toned chirp of spangles and the trill of a robin are familiar, though a blackcap tops them all, spilling its joyful babbling from a hidden perch in the undergrowth. After a long and dreary winter, his serenade to the cool new season is all the more uplifting.
As beautiful as it may be, however, my attention is elsewhere. Beyond its lure of flowers and birdsong, Swell Wood offers a hilltop vantage point over the plains below. This is West Sedgemoor, part of the 700 square kilometer Somerset Levels and Moors. As the largest wetland in the UK it is fantastic for wildlife. And the star attraction? Wild cranes.
Absent from Britain for four centuries, just under 100 cranes were released onto West Sedgemoor in the early 2010s. Scanning with binoculars, I spot a couple in the distance, their meter-tall shapes challenging to hide in the short lawn of the meadows. I was hoping to catch their famous dancing behavior, but they’re clearly not as full of the joys of spring as my black beanie, still chirping loudly. Nonetheless, they are a treat to watch; and all the more remarkable for their rarity.
Somerset is often overlooked in the race to reach better-known Devon and Cornwall, but its birding opportunities are just one of the ways the county stands out. The population of reintroduced cranes in the West Country has now reached 23 breeding pairs; but these birds were common here and throughout the country in the Middle Ages. Frequently served at medieval feasts, they had disappeared by the 1600s due to hunting and habitat loss. The drainage of Somerset wetlands began in Roman times and was accelerated centuries later by the monks of Glastonbury. It’s a story I learn the next day in Glastonbury itself: this famous counter-culture city perched next to the Levels.
“In medieval times, this view would have been very different,” says tour guide Cheryl Corcoran, who shows me around. We are on Glastonbury Tor, the hill at the top of a tower well known to fans of the famous music festival. “All those lowlands would have been flooded,” she said, pointing to the Levels. “That higher ground was an island – the Isle of Avalon – and Glastonbury Abbey was the wealthiest in England.”