As many people over a certain age will remember (please note I am trying to be kind here!) the corncrake was once a familiar sound of the countryside and green spaces in Northern Ireland. A very difficult bird to spot, but you always knew it was there as it called loudly and distinctively through the night with its rasping, mechanical crex crex call. Unfortunately, as farming practices have changed in recent years the bird has all but disappeared from Northern Ireland.
On a more positive note corncrakes are still found in northern and western parts of Scotland and Ireland and RSPB NI is working hard to bring them back here! With birds on Hebridean islands like Islay and in Donegal we are focusing our conservation efforts on Rathlin Island, because of its geographic location between these areas and its suitable habitat.
To make Rathlin as attractive as possible to passing birds it has been recognised that there is a shortage of cover for the birds to hide in and call for a mate in the spring. To resolve this problem we needed help, many hands make light work - isn’t that what they say! We are running a series of volunteer work parties at Glenariff on the north coast of Northern Ireland to dig up nettle roots that will later be taken and planted in suitable locations on Rathlin. Nettles are well known by gardeners for their vigorous growth and so are perfect for providing the early cover we want to achieve.
Last Friday we held our first nettle gathering volunteer work party at a farm in Glenariff with a small but very keen party of five volunteers. The volunteers who were involved in the work party had a variety of long-standing interest in the RSPB and its work or were new to the charities work but keen to gain conservation experience. We started by pulling the roots which had been loosened from the ground by the grubbing device on the tractor. Once free the roots were bagged and after a well deserved lunch the roots were transported to a site were they could be washed. Washing is an important stage of the process which prevents accidental introduction of species that do not naturally occur on Rathlin. After a few batches of roots were washed a pioneering nettle washing system was trailed which involved placing the nettle on a slanted open frame where they could be easily hosed down, turned and drained, very clever!
Although the work is physical, mucky and wet everyone involved agreed it was a great way to spend a day outdoors, surrounded by beautiful scenery, doing their bit to help the conservation of a threatened bird. Five extra pairs of hands also meant we gathered five times the amount of nettle roots a member of staff could have gathered in the same amount of time – and for that we are very grateful!
This was the first in a series of volunteer work parties that will run until mid March and we will be needing lots of help as we need lots of nettles. There are still spaces available on our next work party which will be in Glenariff on Friday 27th January. If you would like to get involved in this or other upcoming work parties there and on Rathlin Island please get in touch with the RSPB NI on 028 90 491 547 for more details we would delighted to have a few extra pairs of hands and to tell you more about the work that is happening to help the corncrake.