Better news about Islands’ bird life

Better news about the Islands' Corncrake population. Picture by Cliff Reddick RSPB.
Better news about the Islands' Corncrake population. Picture by Cliff Reddick RSPB.

For the first time in three years, corncrake numbers in the Outer Hebrides have shown an increase.

RSPB staff, who survey for corncrakes between midnight and 3am every suitable night through the summer, believe that corncrakes had a very successful season, with 34 more male corncrakes calling on the Outer Hebrides this year compared to last.

Corncrakes have suffered massive declines throughout the UK in the past fifty years, with the range contracting severely and the Hebridean islands are one of the last strongholds of this fascinating species.

The low impact crofting that is the general rule on these islands, enables the species to keep breeding well into August, with chicks being seen this year mid-way through September.

While this is unusual, it highlights the fact that a long breeding season is essential for the survival of the species: late hay cutting dates, encouraged by Agri-environmental schemes, have given this small bird a fighting chance for the future.

In other parts of the UK two or three cuts of silage crops are the norm, corncrakes cannot survive within systems like these, so have been pushed to the very edge of their range.

Increased uptake in agri-environmental schemes has resulted in more habitat for these birds, but current insecurities about the future of the subsidy schemes means the future is once again unclear.

This year, however, there was rises in numbers across the Outer Hebrides. North Uist had the highest numbers, with 128 calling males.

This was an increase from 99 last year. South Uist had 89, an increase of 19.

However, the other islands showed slight declines, with Lewis only having 68 birds, though there were 140 calling males present in 2014.

Benbecula was also disappointing, though there was a 2-bird increase on last year’s total to 7 this year. In 2014, there were 31 calling males on Benbecula so the potential is there.

With the current uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the future of Agri-environmental climate schemes, the window for the last confirmed applications opens in January.

RSPB staff across the Outer Hebrides can help with applications, but would encourage all applicants to include some options for corncrakes in their plan.

For further advice or support, contact Jamie Boyle on 01876 560287 or via e-mail at Jamie.boyle@rspb.org.uk.