Corncrake population on the up, but concerns for falling Corn Bunting numbers

A decline in island Corn Bunting populations sees RSPB look to improve conservation methods. Photo: RSPB/Cliff Reddick
A decline in island Corn Bunting populations sees RSPB look to improve conservation methods. Photo: RSPB/Cliff Reddick

RSPB Scotland has revealed that two of its priority species in the Western Isles are experiencing very different population trends – while the numbers of Corncrakes continue to grow, grave concerns are being expressed about the future of the corn bunting.

Local RSPB site manager Jamie Boyle said: “We are very pleased to report another increase in corncrake numbers.

“At their low point in the early 1990s we were down to about 250 calling males in the Western Isles. Now, in 2012, we are up to 515.”

He continued: “There is no doubt that the intensive research that we put into trying to understand what influences corncrake breeding success has paid off.

“With the help and support of crofters corncrakes now seem to have an assured future in the Western Isles where I know they are greatly valued by local people and visitors alike – even if they can be a bit noisy at night!”

However, Mr Boyle expressed serious concern about another bird with close associations with the machair – the corn bunting.

“Corn buntings are great wee birds – known to generations of crofters as ‘gealag-bhuachair’,” he said.

“Although maybe not much to look at, they have a very distinctive jangling call, which they utter during the spring months. It would be very sad indeed if we lost them.

“Unfortunately our latest survey indicates that we are down to just 76 territorial males.”

Mr Boyle also revealed that research being conducted by Aberystwyth University revealed that corn buntings have distinctive dialects that vary from place to place.

He expanded: “Just as it is possible to tell whether someone is from North or South Uist by listening carefully to their voices, so it is possible to do the same with corn buntings.

“What concerns us is that the researchers are picking up evidence of the different dialect groups beginning to mix together. This could well be a reaction to the overall population decline.”

Mr Boyle said that the RSPB was very seriously reviewing the methods it was undertaking to conserve the buntings, with the help of local crofters, in order to reverse the downward trend.

He said: “We believe the availability of seed during the winter months is critical. We have been providing the birds with corn stacks which they seem to be using and also distributing bruised barley.

“We are not sure whether the latter method is working and will try using other seed-types this winter.

“When conserving rare birds it is very important to continually review the action we take,” Mr Boyle added.

“Ultimately we managed to turn round the fortunes of the corncrake and we will not rest until we have secured a future for the corn bunting too. The islands would be the poorer without that distinctive, cheerful, jangling call in the spring.”