Wild Words: Kirsteen Bell

NO F42 corncrake - Andy Hay RSPB Images
NO F42 corncrake - Andy Hay RSPB Images

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Remember football rattles? Hand-held percussion instruments which when you spin them, make a wooden, rasping noise that can go on and on and on.

Now imagine that noise in staccato form, like a toneless, grating phone ringing off the hook, repeatedly. That’s your corncrake call.

The corncrake’s scientific name, crex-crex, is given for its song. It is more often seen than heard. Chestnut-brown and grey, only slightly bigger than a blackbird, it lives hidden, sheltered in amongst tall, thick grass.

Nests are small cups concealed in grass-grown fields, so the corncrake was once synonymous with farmland. However, as hand scythes were replaced by tractors, the corncrake was decimated. What made life easier for farmers and crofters was a death sentence for the bird across Scotland and England.

However, some are tentatively holding onto life on the north-west coasts and islands of Scotland and Ireland. Supported by the RSPB and agri-environment schemes, crofters in Waternish on Skye have made changes to give the corncrakes there a chance of survival.

Cutting fields later in the year allows young birds to grow and leave the nest. Mowing patterns have also been altered to cater for the bird’s flight and escape methods – the corncrake flies low and wary normally, legs dangling along the tops of the seedheads or in amongst them.

But when confronted by danger they tend to stay on the ground in the long grass. A tractor mowing from the outside of a field would corral the fluttering birds into the middle, where there would be no escape.

If the corncrakes did break with character to fly over the newly-opened ground, they would be clearly visible to predators. Instead, using corncrake-friendly methods, crofters start in the centre and work their way out, pushing the birds to the safety of field edges.

In a video made by the RSPB on crofters and corncrakes, Waternish crofter Catherine Matheson says: ‘I grew up on a farm locally so it’s in my blood and I have great joy in passing it down to my children and they do already as at a young age they are really interested in farming. But also, they’re becoming more aware the world is a fragile place when it comes to nature.’

Shelagh Parlane, Corncrake Project Officer for the RSPB, says: ‘Ultimately the corncrakes like well-kept agricultural land. Corncrakes wouldn’t survive without farming.’

However, agri-environment methods can be expensive. They take more time and use more diesel. Grass cut later has lost some of its goodness. The schemes that have been compensating crofters and farmers since the early 1990s are a European initiative – as such the programme currently faces an uncertain future. Ms Matheson says without financial support ‘most people wouldn’t purposely leave areas for wildlife’.

Here is one conservation effort that relies on agriculture, with only a few small changes needed to make room for both – as long as the support continues for crofters and corncrakes.

NO F42 corncrake – Andy Hay RSPB Images

Byline pic: NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1

NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1
NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1