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Corncrake (Crex crex)

Corncrake, Corncrake

 

Ecology

Corncrakes are a long-distance migratory species - breeding in Europe and central Asia, from Ireland in the west to China in the east, and over-wintering in sub-Saharan Africa.

Corncrakes breed in open or semi-open habitats, with sufficient cover, such as tall grass or iris, to hide them from predators, and invertebrates and seeds on which to feed. In Europe, corncrakes now most commonly breed on agricultural land managed for the production of hay or on the drier edges of marshland and wetlands.

During the breeding season, male birds attract female birds with a distinctive, repetitive call known as a ‘crex’. The call is often likened to the sound made by running a finger down a comb. Corncrakes are naturally shy birds and are rarely seen. Where populations still exist in the UK, their presence is often apparent by their distinctive call. Corncrakes typically produce two broods per year, with an average clutch size of around 10 eggs. If the majority of a population fails to produce two broods, the population may fall into decline.

Range

The corncrake was once a common and widespread species across the UK. Changes in land management and farming practices due to technological innovation, led to a rapid decline from the mid-19th century, which accelerated after the 1950s. Today only one non-introduced breeding population exists in England, in Yorkshire’s Derwent valley. This population is thought to have just ten breeding pairs. Recent reintroduction efforts in the Nene Washes had mixed success, as released birds returned from Africa to breed in the UK but the population was not self-sustaining. It is unknown whether this population will persist now reintroduction efforts at this site have stopped. Another, more recent reintroduction programme in Norfolk, bred and released large numbers of birds and a substantial area of land is now under more appropriate management, but at present this population is not deemed to be self-sustaining.

Reasons for Decline

The rapid change towards mechanical mowing in the 19th century resulted in hay meadows being cut earlier and faster. Corncrakes suffered high mortality due to being on the nest when the mower passed, and those that did survive, were left with reduced grass cover to hide them from predators, and provide them with invertebrates and seeds.

By the 1930s, the once widespread corncrake had a patchy distribution in the UK, and the rate of decrease accelerated further after the 1950s due to a move away from hay towards silage systems. Rye grass fields managed for silage had fewer invertebrates than traditional hay meadows and were cut earlier and more often, leaving little suitable habitat for corncrakes. By the early 1990s, breeding populations of corncrakes in Britain were restricted to Orkney and The Hebrides.

The species saw something of a comeback in Scotland in the mid- ‘90s, when farmers were incentivised to cut later in the year through agri-environment schemes. Unfortunately, more recent changes in agri-environment schemes has led to a reduction in the area of suitable habitat for the species, and in in 2017 the RSPB reported that breeding success in Scotland was at its lowest level since 2003.

Project Aims

We will work with local communities to help them understand their natural, cultural and industrial heritage, how its different aspects are linked, how they have changed over time, and what impacts these changes have had. We will work with farmers and land managers to understand how positive changes could be made in the future, to benefit nature, and rural enterprise.

We plan to develop a series of soundwalks using wireless headsets, a parabolic microphone and recording equipment that will meld the soundscape of past and present. Participants will experience the sounds of present-day nature interpreted for them in real time by an ecologist, and this soundscape will be augmented by a sound engineer with the sounds of nature and industry of old, such as the call of the corncrake, and sounds of historic rural industry.

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