This month we’ve been focusing on corncrakes and the work being done to help these secretive birds in Scotland. Here Chris Bailey, RSPB Scotland’s advisory manager, will cover the final part of the story not yet told; the work of our own nature reserves and staff in supporting corncrake conservation.

Corncrakes on reserves

In Scotland, many of our iconic reserves on the Inner and Outer Herbidean Islands, including Coll, Oronsay, Loch Gruinart on Islay and Balranald, North Uist are managed in a corncrake friendly way that looks to not only maintain but also increase their numbers, and help turn around the fortunes of these birds. This is done alongside our work for many other conservation priority species and habitats including waders and farmland birds such as curlews and lapwings, and wintering geese.

On these reserves, we’ve put into practice the solutions for helping corncrake, identified by our research, in our long-term management plans. The area of spring and autumn cover for corncrakes, so vital for them find food and being protected from predators, has been increased by fencing off the margins and corners of hay and silage meadows and establishing stands of suitable vegetation. Areas of hay, silage and autumn grazed pasture have been increased. Hay and silage mowing has been delayed until August and uses corncrake friendly management, giving the birds a better chance to successfully raise their chicks. A lot of this management has been undertaken with the support of the agri-environment applications.

Our reserve staff monitor the populations annually, both on and off the reserves, so we are able to assess the effectiveness of this management and see how corncrakes are doing year on year. This has shown that numbers have increased in-line with changes in the wider countryside and that our reserves hold a significant proportion of the national population; 16 per cent in 2016. Staff are also involved in advisory work helping crofters and landowners into agri-environment agreements.

The other reason to celebrate the success of our reserves is that corncrake conservation is done alongside commercial farming. On Islay, we manage an in-house operation of 200 cows and 200 sheep at Loch Gruinart, 120 cows and 600 ewes at the Oa, and on Oronsay 50 cows and 400 sheep. All these reserves are managed for conservation but also to be efficient and profitable. The cattle are reared for beef production and we have won national show awards for the quality of our livestock. You can find out more about this here.

Work is always on-going to improve the reserves to maintain and improve the quality of the habitat for corncrakes. On Coll, this year seven patches of corncrake early cover areas were identified for improvement. This involved cultivation and re-seeding with Phacelia for bees this year and reed canary grass for next year’s corncrake cover. Whilst at Onziebust, Eligsay in Orkney we are undertaking major improvements to the farm infrastructure and the habitats with the aim of encouraging corncrake back to the island.

It’s only through such continuous effort every year that corncrakes have been brought back from the brink they were teetering on in the early 1990s and partnership working has been crucial to this. These secretive birds are still a red list species but they have a far better outlook now thanks to the combination of research, policy work, crofter support and reserve work that have been going on for the last 25 years, and it’s something we’re proud to be a part of.

If you’ve missed any of our previous three blogs why not catch up on our introduction to these rare, shy birds, the research that’s gone into their conservation measures, and the vital role that crofters have played in helping corncrakes. You can find out more too in this month's RSPB podcast.