Corncrake numbers in Scotland are continuing to decline the latest RSPB Scotland survey has revealed, adding to concerns about their precarious future here. In 2021 only 850 calling males were recorded across the 16 areas in the country where these elusive birds are found, down from 870 in 2019. Corncrakes are usually surveyed annually but the COVID-19 travel restrictions in 2020 meant that it was not possible to complete the count across all areas.
Whilst the decline from the 2019 survey is relatively modest, especially compared to other years where numbers have seen sharp reductions, it continues the overall worrying downward trend since the record high of 1289 calling males in 2014 and highlights how vulnerable these birds are.
Within the survey there are regional differences in how corncrakes are faring. In the Inner Hebrides the population has plummeted by 12.2 percent from 2019 but in the Outer Hebrides numbers are up by 9.9 percent. The reasons for these regional differences are unclear. In order to safeguard the species and try to provide a more certain future for them in Scotland targeted measures are needed.
The Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) has been crucial in supporting corncrake friendly farming methods for many years but its future has looked uncertain in recent times. The Scottish Government’s announcement at the end of October, that AECS will continue for the next three years was therefore welcome news.
RSPB Scotland will work with farmers, crofters and Scottish Government to ensure as much corncrake and high nature value friendly management is delivered through AECS whilst it continues. From 2025, the Scottish Government has signalled that it intends to introduce new farming policy and changes to farm payments. RSPB Scotland is calling for payments for nature and climate friendly farming and crofting to be at the heart of this new policy.
Commenting on the results, Jane Shadforth, Project Manager for Corncrake Calling, an RSPB Scotland project to improve these birds fortunes over the next few years, says: “RSPB Scotland would like to thank everyone who supported this year’s survey. The results highlight how vulnerable this species remains with numbers declining by more than 30% since 2014.
“RSPB Scotland will use these results to help target management for corncrakes in the right places, working with farmers and crofters through Corncrake Calling and to make best use of the Agri-Environment-Climate scheme. The importance of island communities in protecting this magical species cannot be underestimated.
“The continuation of AECS over the next few years is welcome news to many. As we look ahead though, developing new farming policy and payments that better support farming and crofting communities everywhere to farm in nature positive ways is vital.”
Corncrake Calling is led by RSPB Scotland and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It is delivering land management advice, practical support and funding to crofters and farmers, advocacy for agri-environment policies which support farming in corncrake and wildlife friendly ways, and education activities to encourage both local communities and people across the country to connect with these rare birds and take action to help them.
The project builds on the work RSPB Scotland has been doing with farmers and crofters on corncrake friendly mowing for many years. It also links up with local communities and schools to inspire them to help corncrakes and asks members of the public to submit corncrake sightings. Work has started recently on a touring exhibition which plans to inspire more people about these birds which were once well known and a common sight across the UK.
Corncrakes are the land-dwelling relatives of coots and moorhens and one of Scotland’s rarest breeding birds. Due to their shy character they are surveyed by counting the number of males making the distinctive “crex crex” call during breeding season. The birds migrate here every summer from Africa and used to be found across the UK before the changes in agricultural practices in the 19th and 20th century saw their range and number contract to just a few isolated pockets in Scotland.
Main image: Corncrake, Crex crex. Oronsay RSPB reserve, Argyll. Scotland. May 2006.
Main image credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)