Two species which have been conservation success stories, and ones for which the RSPB has led the species recoveries, have had very different recent fates. Bitterns continue to go up in numbers (yes, they’re booming!) and Corncrakes are declining.
In 1997 there were just 11 male Bitterns making their booming calls from reedbeds in the UK (all in England). This year, they reached 164 males at 71 sites – the highest since some time in the nineteenth century.
Simon Wotton, Senior Conservation Scientist at the RSPB, said ‘In the late 1990s, the bittern was heading towards extinction once again in the UK. But, thanks to conservation efforts to restore and create its preferred habitat of wet reedbed, the bittern was saved and we’re delighted to see another record year for this amazing bird.‘.
Only in retrospect can the increase in Bittern numbers look as if it was an easy achievement – at the time I remember it seemed very likely that Bitterns might go extinct again in the UK. What the Bittern has going for it is that it has very specific habitat requirements – shallow reedbeds full of fish and other Bittern food – and this habitat can be re-created on nature reserves in sufficiently large areas to hold lots of Bitterns. Wetland recreation schemes such as those in the Somerset Levels have provided lots of habitat for Bitterns and there are now 49 booming male Bitterns in Somerset alone. When I was a lad in that part of the world that figure was unimaginable.
In 2017 only 866 calling males were recorded during the RSPB’s annual Corncrake survey of Scotland. This is a drop of 17 per cent from 2016, and down 33 per cent from the 2014 high of 1,289 males.
While there may be several reasons behind the recent declines, including problems related to their wintering grounds or during migration, there is concern that recent changes to agri-environment schemes could be contributing to the declines. The gap between the old Scottish Rural Development Programme Rural Priorities Scheme (SRDPRP) ending and new Agri-environment Climate Scheme (AECS) starting has seen fewer areas being managed to benefit Corncrakes. The uptake in AECS so far is considerably lower than in SRDPRP, though there is a chance this may improve in later years of the scheme.
In addition, payment rates provided by government to delay mowing are now lower, which may reduce the incentive to mow later in the year and could lead to fewer Corncrake chicks surviving. As Corncrakes are naturally short-lived it’s crucial that large numbers of chicks are successfully reared each year.
Paul Walton, of RSPB said: ‘The crex crex call of the corncrake in unmistakeable but in recent years has become something even fewer of us are likely to hear – in just three years Scotland has lost a third of its calling male population. While some areas have seen an increase in numbers this third successive annual fall in numbers is incredibly worrying.
For many years the increases in corncrake numbers have been rightly celebrated as one of the great successes of agri-environment schemes, and a fine example of what can be achieved by crofters, farmers, government and conservationists working together. However, the gains made for this rare species now face being unravelled and lost, and their future is once again looking increasingly uncertain in Scotland unless action is taken.‘.
The Corncrake is a trickier species to conserve as the tale above explains. Corncrakes need grasslands in which to nest and these need to be left uncut until late into the summer, which inconveniences the owners of those grasslands, unless they are on nature reserves. Bribing crofters and farmers to leave their grass uncut for longer, and to cut it in a Corncrake -friendly manner, has achieved a remarkable increase in Corncrake numbers but when the government schemes go missing, or the money goes missing from the schemes, then the success story quickly begins to falter.
Nobody said that nature conservation was easy – and it isn’t. But let’s just note in passing that the RSPB has many massive on-the-ground achievements like these two stories to its name, unlike most of its main detractors.