Michael Cunningham is the Corncrake Field Worker for West Donegal, here he writes about the remarkable Corncrak, and how we can all protect this beautiful visitor from Africa.
The rasping call of the Corncrake used to be an ever-present part of rural summer nights. They were everywhere; and who would ever dream that they would, one day, become so rare. West Donegal and West Mayo are the only places in Ireland where these birds are still to be found in any numbers.
Corncrakes over-winter in the south-eastern quarter of Africa and arrive back in Donegal from early April onwards. Early-arriving male birds will try to attract a female by issuing his distinctive rasping call from a prominent spot, such as a rock or a stone wall within a meadow; he’ll do this for about a week. If his luck is in and he attracts a mate, he will move to a nesting area. If his luck is out, he will move on to ‘pastures new’ – hope burns eternal!
Corncrakes raise two broods during a breeding season. They lay between 8 to 12 eggs and incubate the eggs for 16 to 19 days; the peak of first hatching is in early June, and the peak of second is in late July. The young are led away from the nest within 24 hours and are independent after only two weeks. The young don’t learn to fly until they are five weeks old. As a result of this breeding schedule females and their young can be present in meadows from early May until mid August and some flightless young are still present until mid September or later.
Corncrakes leave our shores in August and September. Nobody knows for sure how old they can live to. An adult male bird that was ringed on the island of Tiree in Scotland was killed two years later on the same island by a car. We can therefore say that corncrakes can live to at least three years old. Further ringing studies could cast a bit more light on this question.
Corncrakes are grassland birds and prefer species rich, unimproved or semi-improved meadows. The annual cutting of the vegetation creates a sward with an open structure, which is easy for the birds to move through. Both young and adult birds feed on the invertebrates and plant seeds that are abundant in such meadows.
Before the arrival of humans in Europe, Corncrakes bred on wild grasslands like those that exist today in Siberia. As the climate warmed, forests started to extend further north; but Corncrakes still managed to breed in riverside meadows and areas where the browsing of animals prevented trees from taking over. But it was when humans arrived and started to remove the trees, to create meadows and pastures for their livestock, that vast areas of land that was ideal for breeding corncrakes was created. Corncrakes have always had a close relationship with humans and, throughout much of its world range, the Corncrake breeds predominantly in habitats created and managed by farmers.
Decline in numbers
There have been a number of factors that have led to the decline in the Corncrake population. As farm mechanisation improved across Europe, Corncrake populations immediately started to decline. This unfortunate and inadvertent consequence of modernisation was due mostly to mowing machinery getting progressively faster and on the method of mowing. Meadows tend to be mowed from outside edge, in towards the centre; this resulted in entrapment of birds in an ever-decreasing island of grass and a high mortality when the last few swathes were cut. Also, the ‘Improvement’ of hay meadow sward, that results from reseeding and fertilisation, produces a dense grassland that is hard for the corncrake to get through; such grassland also contains fewer invertebrates. The trend towards taking several crops of grass per season increased the number of mowing events and the number of potentially fatal encounters with a mower. The unforeseen upshot of modernisation was that meadows became less suitable habitat and quite deadly arenas. Predation by mink, foxes, feral cats and crows have also had a significant impact – the poor old Corncrake has not had it easy!
Nobody would like to see the Corncrake go extinct, so what can we do to help our summer visitors?
Farmers have helped. The actions of farmers and landowners, over these last few years, have ensured that Corncrakes have not gone extinct. There are a number of actions that farmers have taken that have helped. One is delayed mowing; the later the mowing date the more birds and chicks survive; and secondly, ‘Corncrake Friendly Mowing’. This is where fields are mown slowly from the centre-out, to ensure that birds and chicks in the meadow are driven out to the margins of the field and survive. The Corncrake Grant Scheme offers compensation to farmers for delaying mowing – the later they delay the more money they are offered. They are also compensated for mowing in a Corncrake friendly manner. The Corncrake Grant Scheme is also offered to farmers to remove their livestock from pastures used by Corncrakes during their breeding season.
For landowners who have Corncrakes present but who do not farm the land, there is the ‘Conacre Scheme’. In this scheme, the land is rented from the landowner for 11 months of the year and managed for the benefit of Corncrakes.
Pet owners can help. Both cats and dogs are predators – it’s in their nature. Putting a bell on your cat’s collar will help prevent it from catching wild birds (not all but some) by providing an audible warning of your cat’s approach. Some people maintain that neutering a cat reduces its urge to hunt but many dispute this. However neutering your cat is good practice as it prevents unwanted pregnancies and reduces the numbers of feral cats. Also keeping your cat well fed will reduce the likelihood that it will start to hunt due to hunger.
Dogs should never be allowed to wander freely. Apart from the risk that they might kill Corncrakes or other ground nesting birds, wandering dogs are a risk to livestock. Even if they do not attack them, they can cause serious stress, especially to sheep at around lambing time.
Everybody can help by contacting one of the Corncrake Fieldworkers if you hear a bird calling. The Fieldworker for North Donegal is Marie Duffy who can be contacted on 087 6563527. The Fieldworker for Sligo and Donegal, up to Bloody Foreland is Michael Cunningham who can be contacted on 087 6955924.
I have spoken to hundreds of people since I started this job and so many have spoken wistfully of incessant noise of the Corncrake in the summer evenings of their youth; and it is with palpable delight that others report the recent presence of a Corncrake in a field nearby. The first confirmed arrival of this year was on the 17th of April in Portnoo; the main influx occurs in May. Let’s hope there is more good news this year.
If you should hear one, do let us know; we look forward to hearing from you.