Book Review: The Corncrake - An Ecology of An Enigma

BIRDS such as ospreys, golden eagles and crested tits must be worth millions of pounds to the visitor economy in Scotland.

Every year, birders and non-birders alike travel to the country rightly confident that witnessing one or more of these species will be an enriching experience.

But, particularly in The Hebrides, what about ‘corncrake tourism’?

In truth, the plumage of this shy and retiring farmland species is not notably attractive - that is if you actually are lucky enough to see one popping its head over the top of long grass, a cereal crop or some other vegetation.

Also, in personality, it lacks either the grandeur of a raptor species or the cuteness of a crested tit.

But, that said, the corncrake is a special bird with a distinctive personality and a strangely mesmerising call which, because it is uttered all through the night, gives it an extra allure of mystery - just like the nightjar, the nightingale and the tawny owl.

The concept of this little-understood bird as a potential 'tourist' species is novel and perhaps controversial, but credit to Frank Rennie for submitting it in his richly informative and entertaining book - The Corncrake: An Ecology of An Enigma.

The species has been in steady decline throughout Europe for most of the past 120 years, but it is hanging in there in some Hebridean islands where ideas and initiatives to encourage sustainable and responsible eco-tourism are always welcome.

In his concluding paragraph, the author writes: "The development of a form of 'corncrake tourism' that contributes to the rural economy and rural culture without posing any threats to the source of those benefits - the corncrakes themselves - is an exciting possibility.

"If this is sensitively managed, it night usher in the arrival of a public engagement with corncrake population dynamics that can stabilise, or even reverse, the sustained trajectory of declining numbers and range in western Europe that has been the story of the corncrake for the past 100 years.

"Even if this is successfully achieved, I doubt it it would remove the wonderful intrigue of corncrake ecology and, for me at least, it would certainly not make the species any less enigmatic."

Enigmatic indeed.

As a resident of the Outer Hebrides, the author is probably more familiar than anyone with the corncrake.

As he says in his preface, he is "one of the lucky people to have been able to open my window , both at home and (separately) at work and hear each year the unmistakable crex crex call of summer corncrakes".

The body of this study is a comprehensive exploration of all, that is known about the species - based both on his observations (as far as this reclusive creature allows itself to be observed) and on his exhaustive research of pretty well everything has ever been written or said about the species, stretching back to the 18th century and before.

There is also an interesting chapter on the bird's place in history and legend with at least 17 vernacular names in Gaelic and many more in Scots and English.

And how about this for an anecdote - can it really be true? "There are records of a corncrake that, five summers in a row, came to a house in Tiree (the most westerly isle in the Inner Hebrides) and would walk in through the front door and feed on kitchen scraps."

In conclusion, plaudits to Alice Macmillan for the exquisite front-cover illustration, to those who have contributed photographs and to the publishers for their high production and printing values

The Corncrake: An Ecology of An Enigma is published in paperback (£18.99) and is available from Whittles Publishing at

* A further review is at: