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Cry of elusive corncrake heard on Rathlin Island

By Allan Preston

Published 10/05/2016

Corncrake has been heard on the island
Corncrake has been heard on the island

A corncrake looking for love on Rathlin Island is thought to be only the second of the species heard in Northern Ireland in 17 years.

The RSPB says the notoriously shy birds have been virtually wiped out here in recent years due to changes in farming practices.

But in recent days the distinctive 'crex-crex' mating call of a male corncrake has been heard on Rathlin around dusk, prompting hopes the species will make a comeback.

Given its secretive nature, the corncrake is almost impossible to spot, with only its unmistakable call giving it away.

While common off the western coast of Scotland and in Donegal, the last known pair to breed in Northern Ireland were recorded in the late 1990s.

A male was also heard in the Church Bay area of the island in May 2014, but was unable to attract a mate after being disturbed.

Every summer the pigeon-sized birds make the long distance trip from Africa, seeking out the appropriate protective cover for breeding grounds.

In a bid to bring back the bird, RSPB NI staff launched the Giving Corncrake A Home project to create the right conditions for it on Rathlin.

Nettle roots have been taken from the mainland and planted round the edges of hayfields with brambles cleared to create "corncrake corridors", which provide essential connectivity between areas of suitable habitat.

Rathlin Island warden Liam McFaul said he was delighted that this work was paying off.

He said: "Even if the male doesn't manage to attract a mate this year, it's a really encouraging sign that the work we're doing for these shy, secretive birds is making a difference."

In Northern Ireland corncrakes were flourishing at the end of the 1960s, but by the 1980s had largely receded to the western counties, particularly Co Fermanagh. And by the 1994 breeding season not a single corncrake was recorded.

A previous study by the RPSB said changes in agricultural practices in Northern Ireland reduced the birds' population by 80% in just three years, from 1988 to 1991.

Around this time farmers were encouraged to start cutting earlier and to produce silage instead of hay.

The problem was further compounded by an increase in sheep farming, which resulted in further loss of hay meadows.

With the latest encouraging signs, the RPSB has pledged to continue its work on Rathlin Island.

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