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Counting on corncrake revival

Last modified: 11 May 2009

Portrait of singing corncrake, Scotland

The National Corncrake Survey is asking people to listen out for the rasping song of singing corncrakes

A rare migratory bird that has experienced a dramatic recovery in its fortunes thanks to dedicated conservation work is to be the subject of a UK survey to see if it is now spreading from its core areas in the west of Scotland.

Corncrakes have begun to return to the UK – after spending the winter in Africa - and the public will be able to call in on special hotline numbers to submit their records of the species to the National Corncrake Survey.

Once common and widely distributed across the whole of the UK, the species underwent extremely steep declines in the 19th and 20th centuries due to changes in traditional farming practices and agricultural intensification.

'We are really interested in seeing if last year’s slight slump in numbers was just an anomaly in what has been an otherwise fabulous success story for this species'

The corncrake – a relative of the more widespread coot and moorhen – is a long-distance migrant wintering in sub-Saharan Africa and returning to the UK in summer to breed. When nesting, the birds favour areas of tall grasses and herbs, particularly hay and silage meadows.

However, in the late 19th century when mechanised mowing allowed hay making to be completed more rapidly, the corncrake population plummeted and became restricted to the Hebridean islands on the west coast of Scotland. Good concentrations exist on Lewis, North and South Uist, Tiree and Coll.

More recently, through the combined efforts of farmers, crofters and conservationists, the UK corncrake population has seen an encouraging overall population increase in its Scottish strongholds, especially since the launch in 1993 of the RSPB's corncrake recovery programme.

In 1993, the British population was estimated at just 480 calling males. But by the last survey in 2003 this figure had almost doubled to 832 calling males.  Annual counts have shown the population continued to increase until 2007, when the population in the Scottish strongholds hit a recent high of more than 1,270 calling males.  However, in 2008 this number had declined by eight per cent to 1,140 in the Scottish core areas, highlighting there should be no complacency surrounding the recovery of this bird.

In 2002 a reintroduction scheme sought to return the corncrake to England, on the Nene Washes near Peterborough. Last year, the project had its greatest success when it recorded 14 calling male corncrakes. The partnership project includes Natural England, the RSPB, the Zoological Society of London, and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust.  Already six males have returned to the area this year, leading project partners to believe the project may be heading for another record.

Blip

The National Corncrake Survey hopes to establish whether the recovery of corncrake in Britain continues into 2009, and to establish whether the slight decline of 2008 was a temporary 'blip', or if it was part of a more sustained pattern.  It also presents a good opportunity to examine whether the species has managed to extend its range beyond the main core areas of the inner and outer Hebridean islands, into other regions of the UK in the last few years.

Steve Ewing, of RSPB Scotland, said: “This is the first full survey since 2003 and numbers have undoubtedly increased since then, but we are really interested in seeing if last year’s slight slump in numbers was just an anomaly in what has been an otherwise fabulous success story for this species.”

Verified

However, corncrakes are a very difficult species to survey, because they are shy, skulk in long vegetation and are very difficult to see.  The best method to identify corncrakes is by listening for the  distinctive 'crek... crek' call given by singing males, which sounds like a credit card being drawn across a plastic comb. 

The birds are particularly vocal throughout June, especially during the night.  Because of the difficulty of surveying corncrakes, the RSPB is asking anyone who hears the distinctive call of the birds to report it so that it can be verified and recorded as part of the survey.
 
The Corncrake Survey is a combined initiative between Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the RSPB.

Please call

Anyone who hears a corncrake calling is urged to call:
RSPB (England and Wales) - 01767 680551
RSPB (Scotland) - 0131 311 6500
RSPB (Northern Ireland) - 028 9049 1547

How you can help

Help us continue our conservation work