Corncrake remain vulnerable in Scotland

RSPB Scotland

Thursday 11 October 2018

Corncrake, Crex crex. Oronsay RSPB reserve, Argyll. Scotland

Only 18 more calling males recorded in 2018 than previous year

Corncrakes, one of the country’s rarest breeding birds, remain vulnerable in Scotland with counts showing their numbers are largely static following recent declines from a high in 2014, RSPB Scotland has warned.

In 2018 only 884 calling males were recorded during RSPB Scotland’s annual survey. This is a marginal increase of just 2 percent (18 birds) from 2017, and still down 31 per cent from the 2014 high of 1,289 males. There were indications of slightly better results seen in some areas such as North and South Uist, with increases of 18 and 30 per cent respectively from last year, but these were outweighed by losses elsewhere; key sites such as Islay continued to lose birds.

The fact that the species is languishing at low numbers and struggling to recover continues to prompt concern from RSPB Scotland that the long-term survival of these birds as a breeding species here is now under threat. The organisation has renewed its call for urgent action to ensure that Scottish Government, crofters, farmers, land managers and the conservation community do all they can to protect corncrakes.

Corncrakes are shy, secretive land dwelling relatives of coots and moorhens. Every year these small chestnut coloured birds migrate from their wintering grounds in central and southern Africa to breed in a few isolated pockets in Scotland, mostly on islands and the North-West coast on crofts or farmland.

Once present right across the UK, during the last century, corncrakes retreated to the far north and west of Scotland, closely associated with low intensity crofting and farming systems, particularly the cattle based systems on the Scottish islands. In the 1990s, the number of calling birds had dropped below 500. At that time, faced with the prospect of corncrakes disappearing from Scotland altogether within 20 years, agri-environment and conservation schemes were introduced to turn their fortunes around. These schemes lead to an increase in numbers to 2014’s high point.

Despite good knowledge of what this species needs to thrive, the precise causes of recent problems for corncrakes are not fully understood.  Issues on the wintering grounds – only recently pinpointed in the Congo and Sahel by RSPB research - or on migration could be factors. Closer to home, the effect of delayed, late springs, the reduction of cattle numbers and a reduction in the area under positive management could be having an impact. While it is encouraging that there were no further declines in the whole population between 2017 and 2018, the Scottish corncrake is still a highly vulnerable species both here and across Europe, and its fortunes can change very quickly.

RSPB Scotland delivers conservation measures through a variety of mechanisms, including management of our reserves and land management agreements. However, the future of this species depends on action at a larger scale, across the whole landscape in addition to nature reserves. Management as part of government-funded agri-environment schemes, which support farmers and crofters to manage their land well for wildlife and the environment, is critically important. The Scottish Government has just announced the opening of the 2019 round of their Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS).

Bridget England, Conservation Advisor at RSPB Scotland, said: “We urge crofters and farmers in key corncrake areas to consider applying for an AECS contract in 2019. Fantastic work has been delivered for this species by Scotland’s crofters and land managers over the last couple of decades and we need to keep this up or even increase it now that our corncrakes seem to be in a bit of trouble. RSPB Scotland advisers can provide guidance on the right options to choose for your ground.’

She continued: “Whilst it is fantastic news that Scottish Government has announced the opening of the scheme next year, there is a need for them to develop a long-term plan for future policy and funding beyond 2019 which allows continued support to vulnerable species such as Corncrake.”

In the coming years, it is hoped the species will also benefit from Heritage Lottery Funding (HLF) funding. HLF has kindly provided a stage 1 development grant which will allow RSPB to appoint a project manager for the initiative - aptly named SCALE (Saving Corncrakes through Advocacy, Land management and Education). This project will focus on three key areas to help ensure the long-term future of corncrakes here if the full grant funding bid is successful. The project will work across Orkney, Durness, Skye, Outer Hebrides, Argyll and Inner Hebrides to deliver corncrake friendly land management, advocate for sustainable funding for  high nature value farming and inspire local communities to appreciate the fantastic wildlife around them.

Bridget added: “The corncrake story is an important reflection of how modern Scotland manages and prioritises its natural heritage treasures. We have had huge successes in the past, which we should celebrate – but these now need to be consolidated and built upon for the coming generations.” 

Last Updated: Thursday 11 October 2018

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