Last month, we held a pilot Corncrake Festival, the first ever on Skye, and what a festival it was! RSPB Scotland’s Jen Mullen tells us more.

Corncrake Festival on Skye

A 5am alarm clock is quite early for any day of the week, but it is perhaps most brutal on a Monday morning after your best friend’s hen weekend. However, it is worth it when you know it is all for the sake of corncrakes.

Armed with a car boot full of arts & craft goodies and a bespoke Wild Challenge ‘Corncrake Festival’ selfie board, Jane and I set off for the magical Isle of Skye; one of only a few places in Scotland where corncrakes come to breed.

Staff and volunteers pose with our photo frame!

The corncrake, a pigeon sized bird which nests in hay and silage meadows, was once common over the whole of mainland Britain.  By the 1990’s they had retreated to the far north and west of Scotland and numbers had dropped to critical levels. Thanks to agricultural subsidies supporting the wildlife-friendly crofting and farming practices of the west coast islands, the corncrake’s fortunes have changed. There are now good numbers on the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree and there were 17 calling males recorded on Skye in 2018.

The first location for our two-day festival was Kilmuir Hall, located on the Trotternish peninsula which is the northernmost peninsula on the Isle of Skye. Pupils from Kilmuir and Staffin Primary schools joined us for a day of corncrake celebrations. Day two would take us to Waternish, where Carbost, Dunvegan, Edinbane, Struan Primary Schools and Skye home schoolers travelled to take part.

Throughout both days, pupils took part in fun and educational activities that focused on wildlife and crofting. Corncrakes, and wildlife in general, are strongly linked to nature-friendly crofting and farming, and the festival’s goal was to celebrate this. It is important that we support and protect both crofting and corncrakes.

Jane and I oversaw the arts & crafts activities. All of the pupils worked together to create six corncrake collages which showcased the habitat and diet that corncrakes require. There was one particularly exciting, and slightly fictional, collage that had a volcano and a tornado on it.

 collage art depicting corncrakes and natural disasters
Let's hope our corncrakes don't have to face quite as many natural disasters as this collage depicts

collage art with bees and corncrake
Unsure if we feel those bees are in safe hands with Homer Simpson leading them...

  Other activities included:

  • The Corncrake Migration Game – a fun and active game which helped the pupils learn about the epic journey these wee birds make from Africa to Scotland each year, and all the threats they face along the way.
  • Mowing and Music - where pupils cosied up inside a tipi tent and learned about corncrakes through song, before going outside to have a go at mowing their ‘imaginary’ croft in a way that would help corncrakes and their chicks escape to long unmown vegetation at the side of the croft.
  • The Nest Game – groups were split into corncrakes and predators. The corncrakes had to find suitable nest sites for their chicks and journey out to collect food without being spotted by predators.

 kids outdoors playing a game
Wrapped up warm for some outdoor games

At the end of each day, the pupils came together to perform the corncrake song that they had learned from Judith in the tipi tent. They clearly enjoyed performing it and it was so lovely to listen to; there’s a chance I may have had a tear or two roll down my cheek. We made sure the pupils had a memento to take home; they each received a tote bag with a corncrake on it. Their last mission, should they choose to accept it (and many of them did) was to decorate the bag with some of the plants and flowers that corncrakes use for cover.

the kids show off their tote bag designs
Modelling the most trendy tote bags ever to have existed

All in all, it was a fantastic two days with lots of fun and learning. We had fantastic support from local businesses for transport and refreshments, including NFU Mutual (Skye), MacGregors Industrial Supplies, Dunvegan Post Office, Minginish Community Bus, Isle of Skye Bakery, MacKenzie’s Bakery, Aros, The Red Brick Café/Jans, Jann’s Cakes, Stein Inn, Edinbane Inn, Coop Portree & Waternish Farm. Event materials were supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.  

I was lucky enough to hear my first ever corncrake; a very special moment for me indeed. If you haven’t heard one before, their call sounds like the musical instrument called a Cabasa; the one that has metal balls on it and you twist them to make a sound. It really is quite special.

The festival was run as a pilot to gather feedback from teachers and pupils on which activities were the most valuable and gauge how well received the event was overall. The feedback we received was extremely positive and we therefore hope to be able to run more festivals from 2020 through a 4-year corncrake conservation project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF). RSPB Scotland already have stage 1 NLHF funding for this project and we are currently developing detailed project plans to apply for the full project grant. If successful, we would expect to run the festival in a different corncrake area each year throughout the target conservation range to spread the word about corncrakes and crofting and help support these lovely wee birds.