RSPB Scotland is urging crofters across the Western Isles to consider the fate of the corncrake as the mowing season gets into full flow.
Vicky Anderson, RSPB Corncrake and Machair Project Officer for Lewis, said: “The corncrake is an extremely secretive bird and hides in long grassland vegetation.
“Reluctant to break cover even when their field is mown many succumb to a grisly fate at silage and hay making time.”
Vicky, who recently moved to Lewis from Aberdeenshire, continued: ”I have just started in my new role for the RSPB on Lewis. The main part of my work in these initial stages is to establish the number of corncrakes on Lewis.
“This involves a lot of surveys at the ridiculous hours of midnight to 3 am. I am delighted to report we have good numbers of ‘singing males’ (if you can call it a song!).”
Nevertheless, the RSPB is concerned about corncrake numbers after a notable drop in numbers last year, as Vicky explained: “2013 was potentially a disastrous season with spring and summer very slow to arrive. However numbers so far from the 2014 season indicate we still have a healthy population.
“Crofters can contribute to supporting the Western Isles corncrakes by simply changing the way a grass field is mown. Mowing the field in the usual way, from the outside edges inwards increases the risk of killing adult birds and chicks. They are loath to leave the long vegetation and can end up being herded into the last few strands of the field and killed by the mower.
“The basic crux of corncrake-friendly mowing is to start from the middle of the field and work outwards. The birds will head towards the safety of the field edges. Even better is to leave wider uncut margins around the edges of fields.
“It may cost a few more pence in fuel and lost grass but this is money well spent from the perspective of the corncrake.”
And Vicky added: “Final figures will be revealed at a later date. If anyone is interested in further information on mowing their crofts in a corncrake-friendly manner or habitat management for corncrakes, please contact me on 01851 643284 or on my mobile 07919058641. Alternatively my email is firstname.lastname@example.org
“I have already met a few crofters whilst out and about. I am looking forward to developing more links with and working with the crofting communities to protect this amazing bird with its unique call.”
The corncrake was once an extremely common bird in Scotland and the UK, making use of hay meadows across the country. With its unique call it was probably as much a symbol of a British summer as the swallow.
Today it is confined to just a few areas in the North West Highlands and Islands. The relatively strong population in the Western Isles is largely due to the traditional crofting agricultural system.
The corncrake winters in Central and Southern Africa and returns to its breeding grounds in late April. Many nature enthusiasts visit the Isles every year to hear them and maybe even catch a glimpse of one.