Curlew and Corncrake could disappear

curlew
Ireland’s native curlew, along with the corncrake, could disappear forever without urgent action

URGENT ACTION is needed if we are to avoid becoming the last generation in Ireland to hear the distinctive but now rare calls of the curlew and the corncrake.

The curlew and the corncrake are ground-nesting birds, making them highly vulnerable to the dramatic changes that have been brought about in our rural landscape in a single generation. They are now both red-listed, putting them on top of the list of species that need to be saved from extinction.

Conservation groups are working hard to try and ensure the corncrake and our native Irish curlew remain part of the ornithological orchestral sounds of our countryside. And they need the help of the public and willing volunteers!

A call for the curlew

In the case of the curlew, or crotach in Irish, BirdWatch Ireland is appealing for people to keep an eye out for native breeding pairs over the summer months (rather than migrants from Europe who spend the winter in Ireland but do not breed here).

“The curlew, with its long legs, large brown body and long, down-curved bill, is one of the most iconic and easily recognised birds of the rural Irish landscape.  Its distinct and evocative ‘cur-lee’ call is a welcome sound that has been heard across Ireland for thousands of years.  Sadly, this is changing, and the sights and sounds of Curlew in spring and summer are becoming increasingly rare,” the body says.

Here’s an excellent recording of a curlew’s call – you can listen by just clicking here.

Being a wader, the curlew’s preferred nesting sites include wetlands and damp pastures that are “lightly grazed by cattle”, but the loss of peat bogs and forests coupled with land drainage and intensive farming methods has led to loss of habitat.

Curlew chicks
Curlew chicks begin hatching in May and June

Dr Anita Donaghy of Birdwatch Ireland warns that we have lost almost 80% of our breeding curlew population since the 1970s, estimating that maybe only 200 breeding pairs remain today.

Dr Donaghy wants people to contribute to the BirdWatch Ireland Curlew survey by submitting sightings of potentially breeding curlew (sightings of one or two birds ONLY in suitable breeding habitat – groups of three or more birds flying together are a flock and likely to be migrants).

And if you have a large number of sightings, or would like to get more directly involved with the survey, simply email curlew@birdwatchireland.ie.

Corncrake in crisis

During my childhood, I can recall listening to adults lamenting the loss of the corncrake, once common on farmland before hay meadows were replaced by silage fields. Even then, the corncrake was considered as being extinct by the grown-ups around me, whose chat evoked images of hot summer days and hard-working neighbours pulling together to make sure everybody’s harvest was saved. 

Once common, the corncrake, or traolach in Irish, which migrates from Africa annually, is now limited to Donegal and West Connacht in the Republic of Ireland and Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland, which is within 30 miles of Donegal. You can hear a recording of its ‘crex-crex’ call here.

Corncrake
The corncrake’s call was once common across Ireland (Andy Hay, RSPB)

In the past, rural dwellers would have grown up with the sound of the corncrake’s call from late April until September before intensive modern farming methods destroyed its habitat – meadows with tall, dense vegetation. Corncrakes nest on the ground, meaning they can only breed successfully if they remain undisturbed by mowers.

“The move from hay-making to silage, homogenisation of agricultural enterprise, drainage of damp ground, increased fertiliser applications, reseeding with more productive grasses and the use of bigger, more efficient machinery, have all led to earlier average mowing dates and a shorter harvest period across much of the corncrake’s range. Silage production spread into the west of Ireland in the 1980s and rapidly became the preferred method of grass harvesting,” says a framework report by Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

One key measure in efforts to encourage the corncrake’s return to its former breeding grounds is to recreate it preferred habitat and thanks to the work of volunteers, RSPB NI has been able to confirm that a male corncrake has been heard again on Rathlin Island!

“Early in the breeding season [the corncrake] use early growing tall vegetation like nettles, cow parsley, and irises to hide amongst and RSPB NI staff and volunteers have been working hard to provide more suitable early vegetation cover on Rathlin. Work parties gather nettle roots from the mainland and ferry them over the Rathlin for replanting around the edges of hayfields and brambles are cleared to create ‘corncrake corridors’ that provide essential connectivity between areas of suitable habitat,” says RSPB NI.

Rathlin Island warden Liam McFaul is thrilled that the work is paying off, saying: “Even if the male doesn’t manage to attract a mate this year, it’s a really encouraging sign that the work we’re is doing for these shy, secretive birds is making a difference.”

Let’s hope this is just the first of many positive stories regarding efforts to save the corncrake!

You can read more about why your information-gathering skills could make a big difference to conservation efforts here.

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