Concern grows for future of corncrakes

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

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Corncrakes, one of the country’s rarest breeding birds, remain vulnerable in Scotland with counts showing their numbers are largely static following recent declines from a high in 2014, RSPB Scotland has warned.

In 2018, only 884 calling males were recorded during RSPB Scotland’s annual survey. This is a marginal increase of just two per cent (18 birds) from 2017, and still down 31 per cent from the 2014 high of 1,289 males.

There were indications of slightly better results seen in some areas such as North and South Uist, with increases of 18 and 30 per cent respectively from last year, but these were outweighed by losses elsewhere, including at key sites such as Islay.

The fact that the species is languishing at low numbers and struggling to recover continues to prompt concern from RSPB Scotland that the long-term survival of these birds as a breeding species here is now under threat.

The organisation has renewed its call for urgent action to ensure that Scottish Government, crofters, farmers, land managers and the conservation community do all they can to protect corncrakes.

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

Despite good knowledge of what this species needs to thrive, the precise causes of recent problems for corncrakes are not fully understood. Issues on the wintering grounds or on migration could be factors. Closer to home, the effect of late springs, the reduction of cattle numbers and a reduction in the area under positive management could be having an impact.

While it is encouraging that there were no further declines in the whole population between 2017 and 2018, the Scottish corncrake is still a highly vulnerable species both here and across Europe, and its fortunes can change very quickly.