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Corncrakes flourish

Corncrakes flourish in the Isles
Record numbers of corncrakes bred in the Argyll islands in 2005.

In parts of Tiree numbers are as high as 25 calling males per square kilometre, with an island total of 310 counted in the spring, an increase of 18% on last year and more than a quarter of the whole UK population.

Tiree crofter Iain MacDonald was transported back to his youth, 'For much of my life, corncrakes on the island were dwindling', said Iain. 'Things are different now, though. This year the sound is just the way it was when I was a boy. It takes me back.'

Other Argyll islands have shown similar success. On Coll, a preliminary estimate of 155 calling males was made this year; in 1993, the figure was just 20. On Islay, at least 49 birds held breeding territories this year; in 1993, the figure was just 9; last year it was 31.

Back from the brink
The corncrake was once common right across the UK. Changing farming methods, however, drove it to the brink of extinction in this country. By 1993 the total in Britain was only 480 calling males, restricted to Scottish islands. In the early 1990s, RSPB Scotland, in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD) and, critically, farmers and crofters on the islands, launched a combined effort to reverse the trend.

The key to the birds' resurgence lies in crofters and farmers taking up methods that provide the birds with the habitats and conditions that they need.

Dr Mark O'Brien, RSPB research ecologist, explains: 'The corncrake story shows that when we understand what wildlife needs, and when crofters, farmers, government and conservationists really pull together and help each other, the results can be spectacular'.

RSPB Scotland's Director Stuart Housden said, 'This confirms that the practices we have researched and developed over the years to encourage corncrakes are working extremely well. This has only been made possible thanks to the wide support from farmers and crofters, and the resources increasingly available from the Executive.'

Corncrakes arrive in Britain from late April and early May after wintering in Africa.
They start nesting in late May and lay between 8 and 12 eggs.
The key to increasing the population is to create conditions, which allow the females to safely rear two broods in a season.
Silage cutting in July kills young corncrakes, so the conservation schemes ask farmers and crofters to delay cutting until August.
He went on, 'However, there is still one problem, that despite the increase in population, the range of this bird is not expanding. In conservation terms, it is unwise to have all your eggs in one basket. If this species is to establish a firm foothold, we must help it to expand back into its former range, in particular, back on to the mainland.'

Reintroducing corncrakes to the mainland
In order to achieve this aim, a trial corncrake reintroduction project is underway in an area of suitable habitat in England, well away from the Scottish core areas.

If the trial succeeds, it will pave the way for work to restore the species to areas where it has been lost across the UK. The project is a partnership between the RSPB, English Nature and the Zoological Society of London.

Twelve chicks were caught this summer, under SNH licence, on the RSPB Scotland Nature Reserve on Coll.

They were all transported successfully to Whipsnade, and have joined birds from Poland in an established captive breeding population whose progeny will be released to the wild.

Back from the brink: corncrakes come back

05 November 2007
Numbers of corncrakes have risen again to their highest in almost three decades of monitoring, taking the population of the threatened species in Scotland to more than 1,270 calling males.
Whilst the species has seriously declined throughout most of western Europe, figures from RSPB Scotland's 2007 survey of the birds show an overall total north of the border of 1,273 calling males, and in the core survey areas, a rise from 1,122 to 1,245 this year.
The inner Hebridean and Argyll islands have again proved particularly attractive breeding grounds for this rare and shy bird of field margins and hay meadows.
Tiree's population of calling males has made a huge leap of almost a quarter, from 316 calling males in 2006 to 390 in 2007 - an astonishing 23.4 per cent increase. Together with Coll, Iona, Mull, Oronsay, Colonsay and Islay, this area accounts for 59 per cent of the total Scottish population. The calling male population in the Outer Hebrides was also up 22 birds compared with last year.
Corncrakes migrate to Scotland in April and May from sub-Saharan Africa, where they spend the winter. When the corncrake recovery programme began in 1993 as a partnership between crofters and RSPB Scotland, there were only 470 calling males recorded for the whole of the UK, and the species was heading towards national extinction.
Following detailed research by RSPB scientists to discover the cause of the decline, the joint efforts of RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), supported by conservation programmes funded by the Scottish Government have enabled farmers and crofters in key corncrake areas to undertake management to reverse the downward spiral.
Flora MacLean, who crofts with her husband Lachie on Tiree, said: 'The call of the corncrake is always a sign of spring coming back to the island, and very welcome it is indeed. This year more birds than ever returned and the croft was alive with the sound of males trying to attract a mate. There were also a lot more to be seen, which is a thrilling experience because they are normally so elusive. It's a fantastic success story, and we are extremely pleased to be doing our bit for the future of this wonderful bird.' However, whilst this scheme has brought about this remarkable recovery in the species, it continues to be threatened by changes to agricultural support systems and a growing crisis in Scottish livestock farming, particularly cattle farming.

The environmentally fragile, peripheral areas in north and west Scotland – in particular some of the islands – have already seen some loss of cattle farming as it has become ever more economically marginal and in some cases unviable. The RSPB believes the environmental consequences of losing cattle from these areas are severe.
In addition to the grazing benefits these systems of farming produce, loss of cattle also means declining hay production and mixed farm practices, depriving corncrakes and other wildlife of the food resources and habitats they need.
Livestock diseases, and the restrictions that have resulted from disease control elsewhere in the UK, combined with uncertainty for the future of support systems, are threatening to accelerate this decline into a freefall, with serious environmental and social consequences.
Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, said: 'The continued recovery of the corncrake demonstrates that, with the correct research to inform our management and the involvement of farming and crofting partners, we have reached a point where we have the knowledge and practical skills to stabilise and secure the future of this charismatic bird once and for all.
'However, the corncrake and many other important species are very much dependent on extensive cattle rearing practices that characterise much of the Highlands and Islands. This type of farming has become ever more economically marginal because of changes in agricultural support systems.
'If we are to see this wildlife flourish, funding streams like the Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme and Rural Stewardship Scheme must be both retained and targeted to ensure that these extensive farming systems continue to produce benefits for the rich array of species and biodiversity found here.'

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | UK Bird News | Bird News for United Kingdom 2006  | Bird News for Scotland 2006 |  Corncrake

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