Saturday 24 October 2020

The Call of the Corncrake

Though there is no lonesome corncrake's cry

Of sorrow and delight
You can hear the cars
And the shouts from bars
And the laughter and the fights

The Corncrake for many, like Shane Macgowan in the lyrics of the Pogues “Lullaby of London” has a special significance, The rasping call of the male Corncrake (Crex Crex) piercing the hot summer evenings in rural Britain and Ireland has long been seared into the fading memory of elderly relations back home and therefore the Corncrake holds a special place in the heart for many rural people exiled to City’s and towns,

Corncrakes, once widespread on the grasslands, pastures and meadows which covered lowland England, Corncrakes are now confined in range to the extremities of the north and west of the British Isle, the Corncrake only saved from total destruction by traditional farming methods of remote crofters in Scotland and Ireland and the dedicated work of conservations

The decline of the Corncrakes range coincided with the increasing mechanisation of farming and the earlier cutting of the hay harvest. By the 1930’s it was absent from much of England and South Wales and large parts of Scotland. By the 1950’s when mechanical mowing of meadows switched from hay to silage, Corncrake numbers dropped dramatically. The Corncrakes preference to choose nesting sites inconveniently situated in the midst of the hay meadows, ensured the Corncrake's future was sealed, as it was now unable to out run its mechanical foe.

By the 1990’s Corncrakes were on the edge of extinction, with just 400 calling males in the whole of the British Isles, today the number has improved, but hovers precariously around the 1,000 mark, with a significant dip in recent years being attributed to climate change and destruction of wintering grounds in the savannah of south east and south central Africa.

The Corncrake is a summer visitor, migrating 8,000 miles to Africa in the Winter months. The corncrake is similar size to a blackbird and is closely related to Moorhens, Coots and Rails. Corncrakes spend much of their timing hiding in thick vegetation and are rarely seen, betrayed only by their rasping call of the male It’s the males distinctive call that affords them the name in Latin Crex Crex

Today, conservation groups are working hard to develop reintroduction programmes in various UK locations, the Yorkshire Dales, Nene Washes (near Peterborough) Wensum Valley, Norfolk but all are struggling to secure a self sustaining a population

For the fifth year in a row the distinctive Crex-Crex call of the Corncrake can be heard on Rathlin island. The number of Corncrakes in the UK and Ireland remains precarious with only approximately 1,000 calling males, once widespread Corncrakes have been driven to the verge of extinction in the UK due to intensive farming methods
RSPB volunteers have been working to develop the perfect habitat for Corncrakes by establishing high grassy areas of vegetation in field margins by digging in nettles, cow parsley, hog-weed, clumps of native iris's and cutting back scrub, while ensuring the vegetation cover remains in excess of 20cm in order to hide the nesting Corncrake, The RSPB are also encouraging later grass cutting by farmers (after 1st August) and cutting fields were Corncrakes are known to reside from the centre out to allow juvenile birds to escape

The best place to observer Corncrakes in England is in the Nene Wash and Wensum Valley, before they embark up their 8,000 mile winter migratory round trip to the the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The best place to hear Corncrakes are in Donegal and the Scottish islands in June and July, but for some the Wensum Valley in Cambridgeshire may still prove lucky

The plight of the Corncrake should be a lesson to us all of neglecting the impact of industrialised farming a climate change is having on British wildlife..
Michael Walker