Fears for future of corncrake in Scotland after numbers drop for third year

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One of Scotland’s rarest breeding birds is becoming increasingly vulnerable after its numbers dropped for a third year running, a nature conservation charity has warned.

RSPB Scotland said it fears the long term survival of corncrakes as a breeding species north of the border is now under threat.

The charity spoke out after just 866 calling males were recorded during its annual survey in Scotland this year.

This represented a drop of 17% on 2016, and was down by a third from the 2014 high of 1,289 males.

In fact, numbers have not been so low since 2003 when only 836 males were recorded, the charity said.

Paul Walton, head of habitats and species at RSPB Scotland, said: “The crex crex call of the corncrake is unmistakable but in recent years has become something even fewer of us are likely to hear – in just three years Scotland has lost a third of its calling male population.

“While some areas have seen an increase in numbers, this third successive annual fall in numbers is incredibly worrying.”

Corncrakes are shy land-dwelling relatives of coots and moorhens. Every year, the small chestnut-coloured birds migrate from their wintering grounds in Africa to breed in a few isolated pockets in Scotland, mostly on islands and the north west coast on crofts or farmland.

The organisation said there were glimmers of positive results in some areas such as Barra and Vatersay, with a 47% increase in a year.

However, these were outweighed by losses elsewhere – Benbecula’s population was down 64%, and Durness has seen a 53% drop.

RSPB Scotland is calling for renewed action to ensure the Scottish Government and conservationists do all they can to work with landowners and crofters to protect corncrakes.

It said several reasons may lie behind the recent declines, including problems related to wintering grounds or during migration.

But there are also concerns that recent changes to schemes designed to turn the birds’ fortunes around could be contributing to the declines, the charity said.

It claimed the gap between the old Scottish Rural Development Programme – Rural Priorities scheme (SRDPRP) ending and new Agri-environment Climate Scheme (AECS) starting has seen fewer areas being managed to benefit corncrakes.

Mr Walton said: “For many years the increases in corncrake numbers have been rightly celebrated as one of the great successes of agri-environment schemes, and a fine example of what can be achieved by crofters, farmers, government and conservationists working together.

“However, the gains made for this rare species now face being unravelled and lost, and their future is once again looking increasingly uncertain in Scotland unless action is taken.”

He added: “Right now there is a great opportunity here for the Scottish Government to take decisive positive action and work with conservation organisations in designing a future scheme, not only to help corncrakes, but also to support crofters and farmers deliver as many benefits as possible for our country’s incredible wildlife.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We were aware that some species and habitats could be particularly vulnerable when moving from Rural Priorities to the Agri-Environment and Climate Scheme (AECS) and we are disappointed to see a decline in corncrake numbers.

“However we continue to provide support for the species through AECS and we expect to see the area of management to benefit corncrakes under AECS to continue to increase as further contracts are awarded.

“We are pleased our partners Scottish National Heritage provided funding to RSPB for targeted support of corncrakes during the transition period.”