Fears grow for Argyll’s corncrakes

Corncrake, Crex crex. Oronsay RSPB reserve, Argyll. Scotland. May 2006.

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Corncrakes, one of Scotland’s rarest breeding birds, are becoming increasingly vulnerable here following a fall in their numbers for the third year running, RSPB Scotland has warned.

In 2017, only 866 calling males were recorded during RSPB Scotland’s annual survey. This is a drop of 17 per cent from 2016, and down 33 per cent from the 2014 high of 1,289 males.

In the Argyll islands, which hold 55 per cent of the UK’s corncrake population, the situation was varied between islands, but overall, only 493 calling males were recorded, an 18 per cent decline from last year.

Coll reported the biggest decrease of 45 per cent, to just 49 birds, while Iona was down by a similar percentage. Colonsay and Oronsay were down 30 per cent, and on Islay the population fell by around 10 per cent.

Tiree also recorded a 10 per cent drop to 315 calling males, which is around a third of the UK population. This makes Tiree one of the most important islands for this species in Scotland.

The sharp decline has prompted concern from RSPB Scotland that the long-term survival of these birds as a breeding species here is now under threat. The organisation is calling for renewed action to ensure that the Scottish Government and the conservation community do all they can to work with landowners and crofters to protect corncrakes. Numbers have not been this low since 2003 when only 836 males were recorded.

Corncrakes are shy land dwelling relatives of coots and moorhens. Every year these small chestnut coloured birds migrate from their wintering grounds in Africa to breed in a few isolated pockets in Scotland, mostly on islands and the north-west coast on crofts or farmland.

Once widespread across the UK, they suffered from a reduction in both range and population in the 19th and 20th centuries, becoming confined to these Scottish areas by the early 1990s. At that time, faced with the prospect of corncrakes disappearing from Scotland altogether within 20 years, agri-environment schemes were introduced to turn their fortunes around. These schemes led to an increase in numbers to 2014’s high point.

While there may be several reasons behind the declines, including problems related to their wintering grounds or during migration, there is concern that recent changes to these schemes could be contributing to the declines. The gap between the old Scottish Rural Development Programme Rural Priorities Scheme (SRDPRP) ending and new Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) starting has seen fewer areas being managed to benefit corncrakes. The uptake in AECS so far is considerably lower than in SRDPRP, though there is a chance this may improve in later years of the scheme.

In addition, payment rates provided by government to delay mowing are now lower, which may reduce the incentive to mow later in the year and could lead to fewer corncrake chicks surviving. As corncrakes are naturally short-lived it’s crucial that large numbers of chicks are success­fully reared each year.

Paul Walton, head of habitats and species at RSPB Scotland, said: ‘The crex crex call of the corncrake in unmistakeable but in recent years has become something even fewer of us are likely to hear. In just three years Scotland has lost a third of its calling male population. While some areas have seen an increase in numbers this third successive annual fall in numbers is incredibly worrying.

‘For many years, the increases in corncrake numbers have been rightly celebrated as one of the great successes of agri-environment schemes, and a fine example of what can be achieved by crofters, farmers, government and conservationists working together.

‘However, the gains made for this rare species now face being unravelled and lost, and their future is once again looking increasingly uncertain in Scotland unless action is taken.’

RSPB Scotland is calling for the Scottish Government to work with it to ensure the long-term survival of breeding corncrakes here. It’s vital that the upcoming application window for AECS in 2018 is adequately promoted with application support provided to encourage as much uptake as possible in these areas. Additionally, robust advice must be provided to all land managers on supporting threatened species and the wider environment.

Looking further ahead the next iteration of Scotland’s agricultural and land management policy must include better delivered and implemented support mechanisms for nature, with priority given to rare species such as corncrake. The principle of ‘public money for public goods’ should guide any future rural policy. Farmers and crofters should be financially supported using public funds for delivering the things that are valued as a society but not paid for by the market, including a thriving natural environment, and vibrant rural communities.

Paul continued: ‘While we are extremely concerned that these recent declines will turn into long term trends if no action is taken there is still time to prevent this from happening. Right now there is a great opportunity here for the Scottish Government to take decisive positive action and work with conservation organisations in designing a future scheme, not only to help corncrakes, but also to support crofters and farmers deliver as many benefits as possible for our country’s incredible wildlife.’