RSPB Scotland supports Crofters and Farmers to protect corncrakes

Stephen Magee

Thursday 9 July 2020

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

RSPB Scotland is launching an ambitious £738k project to protect corncrakes with the help of a £375k grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The “Corncrake Calling” project aims to save one of Scotland’s rarest and most secretive birds.

Once widespread, older generations still remember the distinctive crex-crex song which rang out across UK meadows until corncrake populations fell dramatically with the intensification of farming.  They are now confined to a few Scottish islands and a few isolated areas on the North West coast.  

Corncrake Calling will work closely with farmers, local communities and national audiences to provide these iconic birds with the best possible chance of future success. 

In the UK, the corncrake is red listed (the highest level of conservation concern). Their population fell catastrophically during the 1900s due to mechanisation and earlier mowing of grass crops. By the 1990s they bred only in the Hebrides, North West Highlands and Orkney in Scotland. 

Action by the RSPB, other conservation charities and government resulted in a significant increase in the corncrake population between 1993 and 2007. It was a major success story for evidence-based conservation, for partnership working and for agri-environment measures promoting species conservation. 

But the birds’ fortunes have declined more recently. The UK population fluctuated at just over 1000 calling males until 2017 when only 866 were recorded, a drop of 33% since 2014 and the lowest number since 2003. Numbers recovered slightly in 2018 with 899 males recorded but decreased again in 2019 to only 870 calling males.  

RSPB Scotland will work with crofters and farmers to deliver corncrake friendly land management. In May, when the birds return from their winter in Africa, they need long vegetation to hide in whilst nearby grass starts growing. High, grassy vegetation is perfect for concealing their nests and chicks.  Cutting fields late in the summer and from the centre out allows flightless chicks to escape, preventing them from becoming part of a silage bale.   

Educational activities for children will inspire a wildlife friendly ethos among the crofters of the future. Local community engagement events will connect communities and visitors to the amazing wildlife of these areas. New web pages, films, social media and a touring exhibition will take the corncrake story across Scotland and people will learn how crofting and nature friendly farming is crucial for corncrakes and benefits many other species.  

This is a crucial time for the corncrake and nature friendly farming more widely. The RSPB anticipate several years of uncertainty between agri-environment grants that were funded from the EU, and whatever new system may emerge post-Brexit.  

If agri-environment schemes fail to deliver for corncrake in the future, populations of corncrakes and other wildlife dependent on sympathetic management will suffer further declines. The unique landscapes and culture of these remote crofting communities may also be threatened. 

Long term the aim is to build on successful cooperation with the crofting and farming communities to protect and improve on the advances made under EU Agri Environment schemes across the key breeding areas in Argyll, the Hebrides, North Scotland and Orkney. 

Anne McCall, RSPB Scotland’s Director said: “Scotland plays host to almost the entire UK Corncrake population, meaning we are uniquely placed to help this rare and protected species. The work done by communities to provide Corncrakes with the habitat they need is a conservation success story. Research has shown that nature friendly farming backed up by science has made a real difference. EU Agri Environment schemes were a key part of that and it’s crucial to make sure that in the future we build on these advances.” 

Caroline Clark, Director Scotland of The National Lottery Heritage Fund added: “This special bird and its habitat is under constant threat which is why we are investing National Lottery funding in opportunities for people to take action to save them. Not only will this initiative encourage sympathetic land management to give the fragile corncrake population what it needs to thrive, crucially, it will equip a new generation of helpers with the skills and expertise to make a real difference to the future of our natural world.”

Last Updated: Thursday 9 July 2020

Tagged with: Country: Scotland Country: Scotland Topic: Corncrake Topic: Scotland Topic: Scotland