Warm weather, cranes overstay their welcome

Farmers are upset by overstaying cranes, as they not only destroy their crops, but also attract thousands of tourists.

Cranes have become a major tourist attraction in Germany, drawing around 30,000 visitors in September alone to Linum, a small town with barely 700 inhabitants [GALLO/GETTY]

Berlin, Germany – Migrating flocks of cranes flying overhead are normally a harbinger of spring and autumn in Europe. But due to rising temperatures, the birds are sticking around increasingly longer in the fall before heading south.

The average temperature in November this year in Germany was five degrees Celsius, which is one degree higher than the usual average. And on some days, the temperature climbed to 20 degrees at noon, which explains why some migratory birds have chosen to spend the autumn and beginning of winter in Germany instead of flying on to warmer southern climes.

Up until a few years ago, common cranes (Grus grus) normally migrated in September from their spring and summer habitat in Finland, Sweden and Russia to Spain and northern Africa, where they would spend the autumn and winter.

But climate change is altering their natural migratory patterns.

Due to the relatively high autumn temperatures in northern Germany in recent years, particularly in the northeastern federal state of Brandenburg, tens of thousands of cranes have been delaying their departure for periods of almost two months.

The situation is sparking conflicts between farmers in the region – upset by the occupation of their fields by the birds and the invasion of their small towns by thousands of tourists coming to photograph them – and environmental organisations who want to improve local conditions to provide refuge for the cranes.

Three decades ago, “a few hundred cranes would spend a couple of weeks in our area,” recalls Hans Wagner, an elderly farmer who has lived his whole life near the tiny town of Linum, 25 km northwest of Berlin. “But now, there are sometimes more than 50,000.”

These enormous numbers of birds are causing problems. “The cranes are taking over our fields. In the winter they eat our seeds, and in the spring they eat the first shoots of our crops. And the noise they make is unbearable,” complained Wagner.

To make matters worse, the cranes have become a major tourist attraction. In September, around 30,000 visitors passed through Linum, a town with barely 700 inhabitants. Many came armed with sophisticated camera equipment to capture the majestic sight of huge flocks of cranes in flight.

“There isn’t enough room in town for so many cars and buses,” said Wagner.

In response to the avian invasion, farmers like him have installed alarm systems, some of which set off loud explosions, to scare off the cranes.

In the meantime, environmental activists are working to transform fields in the region into a suitable habitat for the cranes – which normally live in wetland areas – by flooding them in September and April.

“The area around Linum is currently the largest habitat in Germany for cranes migrating to and from the south,” ornithologist Henrik Watzke of the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) told Tierramérica.

Watzke, co-ordinator of the NABU office in Linum, confirmed that on some days in September and October, there are as many as 80,000 cranes gathered around the town. “The conditions here are ideal,” he said.

“Autumn temperatures have increased, the crops farmed in the region, primarily corn and wheat, provide sufficient food for thousands of birds, and there are also a large number of rivers and lakes, which make it possible to create swamps for a few weeks a year in order to protect the birds at night from predators like foxes and raccoons,” he explained.

Watzke denies that the presence of such large numbers of cranes poses problems for farmers in the area.

However, according to Heinz Wacker, another local farmer, “A few guys who think they’re really smart expect us to sacrifice our lands and our crops to let the cranes live here for several months a year.”

There has been vocal protest against a new ordinance for the transformation of 700 hectares of land, currently used for cattle grazing, into a protected area for the cranes.

The land in question belongs to the cattle farming company Rhinmilch. “If we lose this land, we will have to shut down,” said company manager Jens Winter.

Moreover, he stressed, the environmentalists do not recognise the heavy costs entailed by the presence of the birds.

“A crane eats 300 grams of grain a day. That means 80,000 cranes eat 24 tonnes of grain a day. In addition, in the spring, they eat the first shoots,” he said. “This situation cannot be described as ecologically balanced.”

A version of this article was first published on IPS.