The elusive Corncrake can be heard on Waternish Farm, although it is rarely seen. It utters its very distinctive rasping call from late April until early August, and more especially from mid May to early July. Sometimes they can be seen breaking cover or perched on a rise to call. They fly low and fast over meadows, legs trailing or outstretched before disappearing on landing in the long grass.
The corncrake has, in many ways, become a symbol of the crofting way of life but numbers, since the end of the Second World War, have fallen damatically and in 1994 only 446 calling males were recorded in the whole of Britain.
The main cause of this sudden and devastating decline seemed to be mechanised farming, particularly mowing. The speed of modern tractors and the efficient movement of cutting blades proved disasterous to ground nesting birds.
Low-intensity farming and the cooperation between farmers – especially crofters – and conservationists have played an important part in the corncrake’s recent comeback.
Although the Scottish hotspots for the corncrake are Tiree, Coll, Islay, North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist, there is much encouragement on the Isle of Skye with 38 calling males recorded in 2014.
Waternish Farm is part of a farm conservation scheme which offers farmers compensation for managing their land in a way conducive to corncrakes.
- Silage cutting is delayed until after 1st September by which time the quality and yield of the grass is reduced but all the corncrakes and their chicks should have left their nests.
- Mowing in a “corncrake-friendly” manner (from the centre to the outside) allows any corncrakes left in the fields to escape without being mown down or having to cross areas of short grass – some thing they are very reluctant to do as it leaves them vulnerable to predators.
- Areas of nettles, rhubarb and yellow flag irises are planted in large beds of thick dung and fenced off to protect them from grazing livestock. These areas of tall spring plants form “early cover” for corncrakes to use when they arrive back to breed in April and May.
- Wide field margins are left uncut around the fields.
- A wild flower and grass seed mix has been sown in specially fenced off areas of the farm to produce seeds for over wintering birds. Oats,
Kale, Quinoa, Millet, Phacelia and Borage underpin the mix.
- We are currently monitoring and encouraging the presence of invertebrates on the farm. There is still much to learn about this vital food source for birds but it is important to know if corncrakes are short of food when they arrive.
All in all, there are encouraging signs that the combined efforts of crofters, conservationists and enthusiasts have halted the decline in corncrake numbers.
In 2014 there were 1371 corncrakes recorded in Scotland – a record.
There is still much work to do!