We are happy to announce the results of our annual corncrake survey, and give a big thank you to the Orkney community for the enthusiasm you have shown in making reports to us this year!  

In encouraging news, a total of 20 calling male corncrakes were reported and verified across Orkney during the corncrake survey period this summer, up by 1 bird on last year’s total of 19.

Corncrake, RSPB Images

This is particularly encouraging given the Covid-19 restrictions this year which affected when and where we were able to carry out survey work.   The additional difficulties in carrying out the surveys made the reports we received from people across Orkney all the more important and the Orkney team would like to pass on a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to get in touch with reports of a calling corncrake, as well as the many others who kept an ear out just in case!  

As these elusive birds are rarely seen, the call of the males at night during their breeding season is what is used to carry out population surveys, and we rely on members of the public contacting us when they have heard the distinctive ‘crex-crex’ call.  These reports are then verified with a survey carried out at the location on a calm night between midnight and 3am, when male corncrakes typically call from the centre of their territory to attract a female. 

Male corncrake calling, RSPB Images

Our Conservation Officer, Jo, who carried out the majority of the surveying work this year passes on her thanks -  "We are especially grateful that people have taken time to let us know when they have heard a corncrake, whether on their own land or elsewhere.  It has certainly been an unusual year for us humans, but it seems that a lot of our wildlife has been getting on just fine, including the corncrakes!  We know that nature in general has been a source of comfort to many people during all of the restrictions this year, and it’s been great to hear from people letting us know about their experiences of hearing corncrakes“

Reports of corncrakes were received from all across the Orkney islands this summer, with a cluster of records between Evie and Woodwick in West Mainland, and Papay having something of a bumper season with 6 calling birds confirmed over the season!  The Holm area and Shapinsay had 2 birds confirmed each, with single birds confirmed in Toab, Birsay, Flotta and North Ronaldsay.  The report from Flotta came complete with a very rare photo which the spotter has very kindly shared with us! 

Corncrake June 2020 on Flotta, photo sent in by Stephen O'Neil

For the second year running a single bird was confirmed at Marwick and we were delighted to again have a calling bird on the Marwick reserve.  It was heard in an area where we have been carrying out habitat management to benefit corncrake for the last few years.  Corncrakes need high vegetation cover throughout the breeding season which is what we provide at Marwick, and as our neighbouring farmer joins us in leaving some areas covered in the adjacent fields, this provides an extensive area of cover for corncrakes and seems to be having the desired result!

Orkney has seen an increase in corncrake numbers over the last 3 years, from only 8 birds confirmed during the 2017 season, to 20 individual calling males this year. This is in marked contrast to the national picture, with overall corncrake numbers falling; 33% fewer corncrakes were recorded nationally in 2019 compared to 2014.  The national corncrake numbers for 2020 look to be broadly similar to 2019 (870 total across Scotland), but RSPB Scotland do not have a complete picture as due to Covid-19 travel restrictions it was not possible to undertake surveys in all locations this year.

Once widespread across the UK, corncrake numbers began to fall dramatically from the early 20th century onwards following the mechanisation of farming and earlier mowing of grass crops. Now found in only a few locations in the North and West of mainland Scotland and on some of the Scottish islands, they are one of Scotland’s rarest breeding birds and are listed at the highest level of conservation concern. 

Due to the concern over the long-term future of corncrakes in Scotland, RSPB Scotland have recently launched of an ambitious project to protect them.  The ‘Corncrake Calling’ project, part funded through the generous support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, aims to conserve these iconic birds for future generations by working closely with local communities across Scotland.  RSPB Scotland will work in partnership with crofters and farmers to deliver corncrake friendly land management and will provide a variety of events and information to both locals and visitors in each area, to bring people closer to corncrakes and their conservation story.

Corncrake hiding in tall vegetation, on RSPB Balranauld reserve, RSPB Images

In Spring, when the birds return after spending the winter in Africa, they need early cover of tall vegetation such as nettles, yellow flag iris or cow parsley to hide and feed in.  Later on in the season high grassy vegetation is ideal for concealing their nests and chicks, who are unable to fly at first.  Sadly, around 60% of corncrake chicks are killed by modern mowing practices, as the birds are reluctant to break cover and unable to outrun mowers.  Leaving an uncut strip around the edge of fields and cutting from the inside out gives the female corncrakes and chicks more chance of escaping to safety. Delaying mowing until later in the summer when chicks are more likely to have already fledged also has a big impact on survival rates, and these practices have benefits for other wildlife as well.

We are aware that delaying cutting or grazing and maintaining both early and late cover can be problematic, particularly due to the need to produce enough silage for winter fodder and are very grateful to all landowners who, despite this, do manage to leave some areas of tall vegetation throughout the season to benefit corncrakes.  We are keen to support others who may be able to do the same, as explained by our Conservation Advisor Tom - " Delayed and corncrake-friendly mowing are crucial practices in retaining a viable population of corncrakes in Orkney, and will help ensure that both residents and visitors continue to enjoy this iconic species.  We are always delighted when someone reports a corncrake on their land and very happy to discuss land management options” 

If you could help bring back the ‘crex-crex’ call of the corncrake as a sound of the Orkney summer then please do get in touch with Tom on Thomas.wells@rspb.org.uk for advice on corncrake-friendly land management and information about Corncrake Initiative payments.

Corncrake in meadow on Balranauld, Outer Hebrides, RSPB Images