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CorncrakeCorncrakes calling

by Malcolm Ogilvie

In the middle of June, I was in a friend's kitchen watching a Corncrake about 10 yards away. It had been calling from a field of unmown hay close to the house for much of the morning and we were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, not really looking for it, but wondering whether, as it was so close, we might get a glimpse. Suddenly, a movement caught our attention and there it was, emerging from a patch of clover coming out into almost full view, showing the distinctive chestnut on its flanks. As it uttered its harsh and rhythmic 'crex-crex', its head jerked backwards and forwards in time with the calls. We watched it for some minutes before it took a few paces and disappeared into longer vegetation. Altogether by far the closest and clearest view I've had of this elusive bird, though a little later the same day I saw two flying low over an adjacent field before plunging together into a large patch of nettles.

Those sightings did not take place on Islay, but on another Hebridean island where good management has produced the reward of eight Corncrakes this year compared with just four in 2001. Studies carried out by the RSPB have shown that early cover in spring is vital to attract and hold Corncrakes as they arrive in the spring, while grass fields are often favoured for breeding. It is believed that one of the principal causes of the large-scale decline in Corncrakes, which has taken place over the last few decades, has been the conversion from growing grass for hay to growing it for silage. The big difference in the two types of farming is that hay is rarely cut before August at the earliest, whereas silage is cut in June and July. Any Corncrakes nesting in such fields have completed their breeding before the hay is cut, but are only too liable to have their nests, and sometimes the incubating bird, destroyed by the silage mowing machines.

On their reserves on Islay, Coll and other Hebridean islands, the RSPB have encouraged early cover by fencing off corners of fields to keep out grazing stock, and have also planted nettle beds, which the Corncrakes definitely seem to like. All stock are excluded as early as possible from fields set aside for breeding habitat and these fields are not mown until the second half of August, late enough to ensure that all breeding has taken place. In addition to managing their own reserves for Corncrakes, the RSPB, together with Scottish Natural Heritage, have been encouraging other farmers and crofters in the Hebrides, both Inner and Outer, to fence off 'Corncrake corners' in some of their fields and to delay mowing as long as possible. Money for fencing, and payments which recognise that a grass crop can lose value if mowing for silage is delayed, have come both from the Scottish agriculture department and, for the islands of Argyll, from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The result of this management, has been a slow, but steady, increase in numbers in the last few years, from a low of under 500 calling males in Britain (almost all in Scotland) in 1993 to over 600 in 2001. The seemingly inexorable decline through the 1980s has been successfully reversed and the signs are encouraging for a continued increase. While views such as I had last month will always be rare, the call of the Corncrake is set to be heard more frequently and more widely as the years go by.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.