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Lessons from a corncrake

 

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I took this photograph of a corncrake in North Uist, and I am disgustingly proud of it.

Corncrakes return from Southern Africa in late April, and they must stumble back into their summer haunts with a groan of despair. In a cold, dry spring like this, the land must seem extremely inhospitable. As soon as they have got their breath back, they head for the deepest available cover, and they rely on early growth like nettles and silverweed to keep them safe. In a few weeks’ time, Tiree and Uist will become fortresses of meadowsweet, irises and cow parsley, but things are horribly sparse when the birds first arrive.

The last corncrakes bred in Galloway in the late 1980s, but even these birds were an anachronism. Most of our corncrakes were lost occurred around the time of the Second World War, and there are only a few old folk who remember them calling on the best arable ground on the Carse of Kirkcudbright and into Wigtownshire. Look around Galloway today and it’s not hard to see why we don’t have corncrakes anymore. Our agricultural landscape has intensified beyond recognition. Little patchwork fields of arable and livestock farming which supported a wealth of wildlife have been ironed into flat, featureless plains of rich silage.

Corncrakes are not alone in finding life pretty difficult these days, and all ground nesting species are on the back foot in the hostile world we have created for them. One of the key factors in the loss of corncrakes from mainland Britain is probably shared with several other farmland species – specifically a total absence of early cover. While they can get by with nettles and silverweed in the Western Isles, it’s hard to see how a corncrake would survive more than a day or two in modern Galloway at this time of year. In an intensive farming environment, there is little room for the kind of “weeds” which make the Western Isles so productive for corncrakes. Ignore the fact that monocultures of ryegrass provide little in the way of insect life; this kind of habitat fundamentally fails to provide the right balance of dense yet navigable cover.

It is tempting to draw comparisons between corncrakes and grey partridges, even though the two species are very different. Both fit in to an agricultural cycle which balances grassland and arable, and both have been thrown into chaos by changes we humans have made in just a few short decades. Grey partridges suffer from the same lack of early season cover at this time of year, and this absence surely drives late winter/early spring predation into overdrive.

It’s no surprise that when they were abundant, Galloway partridges often favoured weedy old cocksfoot tussocks and clumps of cooch grass between March and May; these are almost the only plants which offer any three dimensional structure in an otherwise even landscape. Both have been widely uprooted from ever more efficient farms, and I remember hearing my college agriculture lecturer saying that there was “nothing good about twitch (cooch)”. In an agricultural context, he was quite right, but the countryside is a bigger picture. We don’t have any of the thick green Alexanders which make life easier for partridges in Norfolk and Suffolk, and while we do have some patches of nettles, they are scant and unpopular to human eyes. At the risk of over-stating this point, it’s important to remember that few of these weedy plants are significant providers of food to partridges or corncrakes –  their key value is in providing architectural structure where otherwise there would only be a smooth billiard table of uniformity.

When you consider all that they are up against, we are lucky to have any wild game birds in Galloway at all. Birds like corncrakes and grey partridges face many different challenges as the year revolves, and this spring period is just one in a long cycle of difficulties. Trying to see the changing seasons from the perspective of a small bird can be illuminating, and it will hopefully make me a more useful conservationist. As much as I would love to see corncrakes return to Galloway, I must accept that modern life simply doesn’t suit them. Grey partridges have a more reasonable chance of returning to this landscape, but it is interesting how lessons from one species can unlock details on another.

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