This month we’re shining the spotlight on one of our rarest, most secretive birds - the corncrake. In this, the third blog, RSPB Scotland’s Stuart Benn looks at the vital role that crofters have played in the recovery of corncrakes since the early 1990s.

Crofting for corncrakes

I can still remember the first time.

Late 1970s, I’d hitched from Glasgow through the Highlands and Skye, caught the ferry over the Minch then hitched again (rather more easily) to the west side of North Uist.  I’d read about the machair but nothing could prepare me for the reality – the abundance of flowers, the torrent of lark song, the racket of redshanks and oystercatchers, the fresh wind, the improbable shape of St Kilda punctuating the far western horizon.  It was overwhelming.

And then there was that elusive and mysterious ‘crex crex’ coming from deep within the iris beds.  If I’d been born 20 years previously I’d have heard that sound round the fringes of Glasgow but not now – it had gone from there, it had gone from just about everywhere.  Except here; the far north and west.

I eventually tracked down the caller – a slim, buff, shape-shifting ventriloquist ghosting through cover with the secrecy of fog – the corncrake.

At that time, I knew nothing about why I had to go all the way to the furthest fringes of Britain to see a corncrake.  Nothing about crofting, the intricate blend of ploughing, sowing, fertilising and fallowing that had kept these sandy soils so special for wildlife.  Nothing about the legislation that meant I couldn’t just buy this land and do as I wished with it.   

One other thing I didn’t know then because nobody did was that my visit probably coincided with the start of the lowest ebb of the corncrake in the UK, even on those far-flung islands.  Yes, there were still hundreds of them but they were in decline as slow changes to traditional practices were creeping in.  But, as outlined in Chris’s blog last week this decline led to research and the knowledge of how to reverse the corncrake’s fortunes.

But all this information gathering told us something else beyond that, beyond the biology – to look after corncrakes and so much else on the machair you need to work with crofters.  Talk with them, listen, learn what they do, find common ground, make connections, assist in accessing funding, spend time, drink tea, help bring the harvest in, build partnerships, be helpful, fill in forms, share knowledge, discuss options, find solutions. 

And that’s just the start – once there’s agreement then there’s the management.  Fencing off wee corners, managing stock movements, transplanting nettles and cow parsley, fertilising with seaweed, providing cover, mowing late, mowing inside out, giving corncrakes what they need. All this has to happen every year to give corncrakes the best possible chance of survival. And we work to ensure that crofters have the support from Scottish Government that they need to do this.  

And so the recovery began. Across the north-west, on Tiree, Skye, the Uists, Lewis and Harris, and Durness the declines slowed then stopped then reversed and corncrakes were on the up for the first time in decades.  And that only happened because of all of those hours, days, months and years of advisory time spent working with the crofters.

Amongst those crofters are Katherine and Alexander Tindall who work their land in the north of Skye just as their parents and grandparents did.  They say: “We’re doing everything we can to help corncrakes.  Some might think us odd but we’re really looking forward to being kept awake all night by the call of the corncrake.”

I don’t think they’re odd at all – in fact, we need more people just like them willing to do their bit to help wildlife and giving the rest of us the chance to hear that rasping call and maybe, just maybe catch a glimpse of one of our truly special birds.

You can catch up on our first two corncrake blogs here and here. This month’s podcast is also focused on these birds.