Can corncrakes make a midsummer comeback?

Corncrake

On the longest day of the year, the extended daylight is not the only thing to keep you awake in the Western Isles of Scotland.

As the sun finally sets towards midnight on the summer solstice, the standing stones of Callanish echo to a strange rasping sound: the repetitive, two-note call of the corncrake.

Its call would have been even more familiar to our ancestors and is so characteristic that the species' scientific name, Crex crex, represents the sound.

While the charismatic bird has disappeared from much of Britain, conservation work has helped them cling on in this corner of the country and could hold hope for their future.

Sound of summer

The corncrake is a bizarre bird of the rail family, related to the more familiar coot and moorhen, but favouring dry land.

Until the end of the 18th Century the species was one of the most widespread British birds, found in the rough grasslands, pastures and meadows that once covered much of lowland Britain.

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The poet John Clare, writing in the early 19th Century, wrote a famous poem about the corncrake, which he called by its traditional name, the land rail, describing it as "a summer noise, among the meadow hay…".

But, in the 200 years since Clare wrote those lines, the corncrake's fortunes have taken a massive downturn.

Today, it is confined to the extreme north and west of the British Isles: including the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Skye and a few outlying corners of the north and west of Ireland.

The reason for its disappearance is simple: intensive farming practices have drastically altered the birds' natural habitat.

All farmland birds have suffered, but the corncrake's decline began earlier and was more severe than the rest.

It stands as a symbol of the untold damage we have wreaked on the British landscape and our natural heritage, through the drive to produce as much food as possible on our crowded little island.

So how does the corncrake cling on in the Western Isles? It is all down to a combination of traditional farming methods and far-sighted conservation.

Crofting, the traditional Hebridean farming lifestyle, has held on to the values and methods of traditional farming. This low intensity approach has allowed the corncrake to survive and thrive.

Even so, by the 1990s the corncrake was facing oblivion as a British breeding bird, down to just 400 or so calling males. This is where RSPB conservationists stepped in.

Tractor tragedies

Vital statistics

Two corncrakes

Names: Corncrake, land rail, Crex crex

Length: 27-30 cm

Food: insects such as beetles, ants, and grasshoppers; also some seeds and leaves.

Breeding: lays 8-12 eggs in nest on the ground, amongst thick vegetation; incubates for 16-19 days. Young can fly after about five weeks.

Migration: returns to breeding-grounds in mid-April; departs south to Africa in August or September

Corncrakes are famously unwilling to show themselves and, although under normal circumstances this behaviour is an asset, it almost proved their downfall.

Nesting corncrakes and their tiny chicks, little black balls of fluff about the size of a golf ball, would stay put in the long grass when it was being harvested, not even flying when the blades of the mowing machines approached.

As a result, most met a grisly death.

The conservationists and crofters came up with a deceptively simple but clever solution: instead of cutting the grass from the edge to the centre of the field, which trapped the birds in an ever-decreasing circle with no chance of escape, they mowed the field from the centre to the edge, so that the mother corncrake could lead her chicks into safety in the long grass along the boundary.

As a result of this and other conservation measures, corncrake numbers steadily began to rise, and today the UK population is estimated at about 1200 calling males - almost three times as high as the low point of the late 20th century.

Hopes at home

As well as the efforts being made in the corncrake's current breeding areas, an attempt is being made to put the corncrake back into its former home in eastern England, on the Nene Washes, an RSPB reserve near Peterborough.

Here, a stone's throw from where John Clare would have originally listened to corncrakes, a consortium including the RSPB, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, Natural England and the Zoological Society of London has been reintroducing the species, with slow but steady success.

Corncrake Corncrakes are back in England, but can they stay?

It is perhaps too early to know if this reintroduction scheme will lead to a long-term re-establishment of corncrakes in England.

Unlike schemes featuring larger, longer-lived birds such as the crane and sea eagle, the numbers released will need to be much higher, and the breeding success last for longer, before we can safely say that the corncrake has established a permanent breeding population.

Even if we can do so, the problems facing this and other farmland birds are too big to be solved by just one project, however laudable its aims.

Until we can achieve a revolution in farming, to make room for wildlife as well as producing enough food for us to eat, the corncrake will always live on the margins.

But all of us passionate about the British countryside and our natural heritage hope that, within our lifetimes, the haunting call of the corncrake will be heard again throughout our lowland landscape; and that we all have the chance to be kept awake at night by that bizarre 'summer noise'.

Midsummer Live broadcasts from Callanish on Lewis on BBC Two (Scotland), Friday 21 June, 1930 BST and on iPlayer.

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