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Oct 2010

Corncrake recovery back on track - farmers and crofters credited with recent population increase

The population of one of Scotland’s rarest birds has increased for the first time in three years. The count of singing corncrakes, an elusive farmland species, restricted in the UK almost exclusively to Scotland but was once widespread across the country, rose this year to just under 1200.

After long-term declines dating back to the early 20th century, the species’ fortune was turned around following the introduction of a successful conservation programme in 1993, a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Government and most importantly farmers and crofters. It aimed to maintain habitat by offering financial support to manage land in a way that was sympathetic to corncrakes.

Since the start of the scheme, the Scottish corncrake population has trebled, reaching a high of over 1200 in 2007. Despite a modest, but concerning, decline in 2008 and 2009, counts conducted this year show the total Scottish population of calling males was 1193, a rise of 66 on the previous year. This is largely down to the efforts of crofters and farmers working closely with conservation bodies. Scottish Government payments have allowed land-owners to manage hay meadows and field margins in a way that is sensitive to the species’ needs.

Corncrakes migrate to Scotland in late spring from sub-Saharan Africa. Here, they spend the summer breeding and rely on the tall grass to shelter their young. Since changes in agricultural practices, notably the cutting of hay and silage crops earlier in the year, this shy bird has retreated to strongholds in the Hebridean and Argyll islands, along with the Outer Hebrides. This is largely because local crofters and farmers use low-intensity wildlife-friendly land management practices, - “high nature value farming” - which help support bird and animal populations. However, agri-environment payments are needed to provide crofters and farmers with the necessary income to manage land this way.

Local crofter Alistair MacDonald said “I’m very lucky that the land I manage on North Uist is home to a number of corncrakes. You don’t often see these unusual birds but you definitely hear their “crake crake” call coming from the tall grass. It’s a good feeling knowing I am helping save a rare species, while at the same time making a living for my family. But I doubt I would be able to do both without the money I receive from agri-environment payments. They allow me to manage my land in a way that help these birds without greatly impacting on my income. I’m not sure how many farmers or crofters would be able to consider corncrake-friendly farming without them. For land-managers to be able to continue supporting corncrake recovery we have to make sure there’s enough money in the scheme and putting an application in isn’t too complicated.”

Dr Paul Walton, Head of Habitats and Species at RSPB Scotland, added: “The Scottish Government’s Rural Priorities scheme has proved vital in assisting corncrake recovery. Without it, and the hard work of crofters, farmers and our other partners, that distinctive crex call may have disappeared from our countryside forever. However, it is very important that those finishing agreements from previous schemes can get into the new SRDP to carry on this management. We have reports of land-managers facing difficulty getting into the new scheme due to it being online and the long waiting list for advisors. This has to addressed.

"Moreover, the threat of spending cuts has raised concerns that those who farm with corncrakes in mind will be unable to access the right support. The story of the Scottish corncrake tells us that agri-environment measures really can make a difference. We urge the Scottish Government to keep that in mind as it considers its financial future in the light of spending cuts and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy."