Chris Bailey - RSPB Scotland's Advisory Manager - tells us below how corncrakes have fared in 2019, and why it is so important that we continue to work on conserving them.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the corncrake was so widespread that it featured on collectable cigarette cards of common British birds. According to the example below from circa 1920, a corncrake’s nest was ‘built on the ground amongst mowing grass, clover fields and stands of corn’.  Significantly, all of these are habitats found primarily on farmed land and the corncrake is a species that has long been associated with human activity.

Now, in the UK, sustainable populations of corncrake only occur in the far north and west of Scotland but the bird is still highly dependent on agriculture. It is found primarily on smaller agricultural units, which provide a mosaic of grazed and mown grasslands, interspersed with pockets of tall herb cover such as cow parsley, nettles and flag iris. Corncrakes are not keen to be out in the open and these early growing, tall herbs act as cover for birds arriving from Africa in spring when grasslands are still short in Scotland. Beef cattle farms and crofts tend to create the best habitat combinations: cattle produce dung, which feeds the nutrient loving tall herbs; and the system requires grass silage for livestock feed, which provides corncrake with the long vegetation they need for cover later in the breeding season. This bird is not looking for wilderness but sticks close to people and their animals.

Currently, across Europe and the UK there is a great deal of debate about the degree to which people should intervene to affect the course of nature. Strong arguments have emerged for ‘rewilding’, which is a system of non-intervention or at least much reduced intervention by humans, which allows ecological processes to take their natural course. However, it is also to be celebrated that some species like corncrake thrived precisely because of people, their way of life and their land management systems. And the corncrake is not alone in this respect. In places like the Outer Hebrides, crofting systems support huge breeding wader populations, spectacular flower rich machairs and a host of invertebrates such as the great yellow bumblebee.

Cattle and oystercatcher on a croft in the Uists. J.Boyle, RSPB Scotland

Of course, things can change rapidly and, when farming practice shifts, so does the fate of the wildlife it supports. In the latter part of the 20th Century, it was simply not economically viable for most farmers to continue to operate at the levels of low-intensity required by corncrakes and by the late 1970s the bird was no longer found right across the UK but had retreated to the remoter parts of Scotland. In 1993, only 440 calling males were recorded in the annual survey and concern for the species was high.

In response, a raft of conservation measures was introduced, including compensation payments to farmers and crofters to delay the cutting of silage fields and create tall herb cover. The success of these actions was startling and, within a few years, the Scottish corncrake population had doubled in size.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the scale of conservation delivery for corncrakes vastly increased and partnerships were set up to promote good practice. While, historically, corncrakes were effectively a by-product of a certain type of land management, they became the icons of good collaboration between conservationist, agriculturalists and land managers. Looking after corncrake became an integral part of farming and crofting in most of the bird’s core areas. That effort kept Scotland’s corncrake population in good shape and, in 2014, it reached a high of 1,282 calling males.

Worryingly, since 2014, there have been year on year declines in the Scottish corncrake population. In 2019, only 870 calling males were recorded in the annual surveys of the Scottish core areas, a 30 percent decrease from the high of 2014. Declines vary across the core areas and, indeed, some places have not seen declines at all. In North and South Uist for example, numbers have increased since 2014. It is clear, therefore, that corncrakes face different challenges in different places. 

In 2018 and 2019, RSPB Scotland carried out a review of conservation delivery for corncrake in all of its core areas to try to pinpoint the problems the species faces in specific locations. To reverse declines where they are occurring and bolster Scotland’s corncrake population as whole, the organisation is applying for a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant for the project Saving Corncrakes through Advocacy, Land Management and Education (SCALE). If the application is successful, SCALE will focus on three key areas. Firstly, advocating for government agri-environment schemes which are better for biodiverse wildlife including corncrakes; secondly, supporting crofters and farmers with funding, advice and practical support to farm in corncrake friendly ways; and thirdly raising local and national awareness of these elusive birds through local events, ecotourism support, web pages, social media campaigns, films and podcasts and a touring exhibition.

Let us hope that future measures will be as successful as those of the 1990s and early 2000s and that the corncrake will remain part of Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage for a long time to come.