Plans for a project aimed at saving one of Scotland’s rarest birds have taken a positive step forward thanks to an award of £30,300 from The National Lottery. In recent years corncrake numbers in Scotland have fallen to worryingly low levels; the funding will allow RSPB Scotland to develop the project further over the next year ahead of applying for a full Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £370,000. This would fund a four year project beginning in January 2020.
Corncrakes are summer migrants to Scotland and spend the winter months in Africa. They are shy chestnut coloured land dwelling birds and related to moorhens and coots. In Great Britain they are only found on a number of Scottish islands and a few isolated areas on the North West coast mostly found on farmed land and in crofting areas. Last year’s population survey, measured by the number of calling males, revealed that only 866 had been recorded, a drop of 33 per cent since 2014 and the lowest number since 2003.
The birds were once widespread across the UK but increased agricultural mechanisation from the mid-19th century onwards led to a vast reduction in their range and numbers. By the late 1980s they were confined to a few places in Scotland with the likelihood that within the next 20 years they would be lost as a British breeding species if action wasn’t taken. An incredibly successful joint effort between conservationists, scientists, government, farmers, crofters and land managers and with the backing of EU funding led to a steady overall increase from 480 in 1993 to a high of 1,289 in 2014 before the recent concerning declines.
The project in development called SCALE – Saving Corncrakes through Advocacy, Land management and Education will focus on these three key areas to help ensure the long term future of corncrakes here through a number of activities if the full grant funding is successful. These include working with farmers and crofters across Orkney, Durness, Skye, Outer Hebrides, Argyll and Inner Hebrides to deliver corncrake friendly practices. There will be practical and financial support for measures such as delayed mowing dates to help chick survival and the creation of dense vegetation areas to give corncrakes the cover they need.
Given their secretive nature corncrakes can be rather elusive and difficult to see. RSPB Scotland would work with local communities in these places, providing dusk time safaris to hear their distinctive call, and developing an education programme for schools to inspire children about the birds.
RSPB Scotland would also make the case that long term funding is needed at a national level to secure corncrakes’ Scottish future. This will include developing new appropriate agri-environment schemes for corncrakes in any post-Brexit agricultural policy design.
Kenna Chisholm, Regional Conservation Manager, RSPB Scotland said: “We’re delighted that SCALE has been awarded this crucial Stage 1 funding from HLF and very grateful that we can now progress our plans further in the hope that we’ll gain full funding next year. It’s no overestimation to say that the long term survival of corncrakes in Scotland is resting with this project. Even at the population high four years ago corncrakes remained an incredibly vulnerable species here in Scotland, as demonstrated by the fall in numbers since then. We’re now facing a similar situation to that of the early 1990s where if action is not taken soon the rasping crex crex call of the corncrake may become a thing of the past here.”
Mr A MacLean, a crofter from North Uist said: “I am delighted that RSPB Scotland have secured the funding to develop this application. It shows a commitment to corncrakes and crofting during a time of uncertainty for both.”
Sally Thomas, SNH Director of People and Nature, said: “This is an exciting opportunity to help increase the corncrakepopulation in Scotland, and we’re looking forward to helping support the project. These distinctive birds look for habitats with taller plant life of at least 20cm, cutting grass and plants before it reaches that height can destroy their habitat; it’s great to see RSPB Scotland will be prioritising working with local communities to raise awareness of corncrake-friendly land management practices.”