Corncrake numbers plummet in the Inner Hebrides

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Corncrake numbers in Scotland are continuing to decline the latest RSPB Scotland survey has revealed, adding to concerns about their precarious future in the country.

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.

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 1,289 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 per cent from 2019 but in the Outer Hebrides numbers are up by 9.9 per cent. 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.

Jane Shadforth, project manager for Corncrake Calling, an RSPB Scotland project to improve these birds fortunes over the next few years, said: ‘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 per cent 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 (AECS). 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.’