The Corncrake was once a very common bird of rural areas at the turn of the last century, being found in every county and probably every parish in Ireland. They are summer migrants, returning to their breeding grounds from Africa from mid April onwards, leaving again in September. Because they nest on the ground in hay meadows, when harvest time comes, many young birds and nests are destroyed by the mower. As machinery has become faster and more powerful and traditional hay making practices have been replaced by silage production, the number of losses has increased, to the extent that the population in Ireland is now just a remnant of former times.
In fact, corncrakes are confined almost entirely to just three areas, the Shannon Callows, or water meadows, in the midlands; Donegal, particularly the coastal areas and some islands, including Tory and Inishbofin and West Connacht, particularly the Mullet Peninsula and north west Connemara. In 1988, there were almost 1,000 pairs in the whole country, but last year, there were just 150 pairs recorded and all these were in the three core areas.
However, it's not all bad news. Whilst the numbers overall are still continuing to decline slowly, the populations in Donegal and the West are actually stable or indeed increasing. This is thanks largely to conservation schemes; for almost 15 years, the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been funding a BirdWatch Ireland conservation project, without which the call of the corncrake would undoubtedly be just a memory. The project consists of the deployment of fieldworkers every year, who locate and count the birds, offer grant schemes to farmers to undertake measures aimed at protecting nests and the young and who arrange for additional measures to improve the habitat. The grants available compensate farmers to delay mowing until after the main nesting season and to cut fields from the centre out, which allows young birds to escape the mower.
Whilst these measures are leading to increases in Donegal and the West, unfortunately, the population on the Shannon Callows continues to decline. This has been due to a series of disastrous summer floods over the last six years, which has led to nests and young being destroyed. However, with all possible measures in place to protect them now, their survival is reliant totally on the weather - lets hope they have a series of relatively dry summers and good breeding success!
So how can you help the corncrake project? If you are visiting any of the core areas in May, June or July, listen out for corncrakes calling from meadows. They call most frequently late at night, particularly on warm, still nights, when their voices can carry a long way in the stillness! If you are lucky enough to hear one, please do report it to BirdWatch Ireland via the National Corncrake Hotline - 05791 51676. These reports are very important to us, as corncrakes can turn up in unusual places each year, and we rely on reports to the Hotline to help us get a full count. For more details, visit the BirdWatch Ireland website, www.birdwatchireland.ie Happy listening!