Bitterns up, Corncrakes down

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.

Great Bittern Botaurus stellaris, walking through reedbed habitat, RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk, England, March. Photo: Jamie Hall. 

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.

Corncrake, Crex crex, captive breeding. Moritz, Germany (Dieter Wendt) May 2001 RSPB

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.


13 Replies to “Bitterns up, Corncrakes down”

  1. I see and hear far more Bitterns now here in northern England than I ever hoped or imagined, a fantastic bird, and a marvellous achievement. Hindsight is a great thing ( sometimes), making what Bitterns need on nature reserves was the key to all of this as Mark says. In contrast the poor old Corncrake, another fantastic bird I’ve seen or heard but rarely and it seems it is not doing so well because of a decline in agricultural payments and a change of scheme. We’ve seen this before, and continue to see it, with lots of birds in “farmland.”
    Would it be too cynical of me to say of those farmers where the Corncrakes are or were they are only in it for the money and don’t really care a toss for this delightful bird? As they already know what is needed but have to be paid to do it.

    1. No Paul it wouldn’t be too cynical of you to say ‘those farmers where the Corncrakes are or were they are only in it for the money and don’t really care a toss for this delightful bird?’ Some years ago I worked on the Isle of Lewis on a fuel poverty/carbon emissions reducing project. Although I was not expecting paradise on earth and have always had the suspicion that the crofting community were apt to milk the ‘poor crofters still suffering from the Highland clearances’ thing from time to time was none the less extremely excited to get to a part of Scotland many Scots have never been to and thought I would encounter a particularly hospitable and well educated subset of the general population with higher than average interest in conservation. I have never, ever been so quickly and thoroughly disillusioned in my life and I’m now 50.

      First of all most crofters were LOADED!!! I had expected to see little run down crofts with polytunnels and the wee vegetable patch, what I encountered was more like the stockbroker belt in Surrey – 4/5 bedroom ‘blackhouses’ with hardwood conservatories, brand new fitted kitchens and usually a shiny SUV out front. None of this is illegal of course, but there’s something wrong when you have the same group being put forward as a down trodden minority who are impoverished and never listened to by those at Westminster/Holyrood blah, blah, blah! Even the non crofters in Stornoway would comment ‘the crofters get everything’ – from what I saw that was spot on. Anybody who thinks this is an exaggeration or unfair is free to go there and then tell me I’m wrong.

      No group of people are a homogenous mass including crofters, but although there were a few genuinely kind and pleasant ones – I can’t say that was my general impression and there were plenty I found arrogant, financially grasping with a tendency to look down their noses at non islanders or non followers of their particular faith – the ‘wee frees’ are particularly notorious in Scotland for intolerance of others. I can honestly say I saw more humility and hospitality in Corstorphine a supposedly snobby part of Edinburgh than I experienced on Lewis. Maybe Lewis was atypical of the crofting community, which I doubt, but even so it represents a bloody big slice of ‘Gaeldom’.

      There was a lot more I could say, but the end product is now that when I hear someone banging on about how hard the crofting community has had and is getting it my hackles rise. Not prejudice, experience which if it was shared by more central belt scots in particular would see some pretty drastic changes re government policy towards and public subsidy of the crofting community. I would not be at all surprised if money dropping away from schemes to protect the corncrake has meant those involved not bothering their arse even if they could still carry on with the conservation work – which of course would lessen the case for financial support in the first place.

      There are brilliant people like Chris Jones – initiator of the Cornwall beaver trial – who happen to be farmers in the same way that there are real conservationists who happen to be nurses, teachers, firemen. We really need to be more forth right in challenging what is really the privileged status of some groups which is allowing them to say and do pretty much what they like. It’s easier for me to speak up against what I see as the misrepresentation of and by the crofting community because I’ve had direct dealings with it, but it’s also a necessity because if I didn’t voice/type my frustrations I think I’d pop a blood vessel! We need to be given a more impartial view of the farming community – crofting especially – than we are at present when getting spoon fed pap via Countryfile etc from vested interests such as the NFU and Crofting bodies is the standard.

      1. I’ve noticed that an increasing number of “crofters” are actually retirees from the financial industry doing a hobby-job on a hobby-farm these days. Just another sign of rising wealth inequality and removal of opportunities for the less moneyed classes. Of course it is not so different for lowland farms either right now, if you don’t have a relative in the industry already to grease the required palms then you ain’t going to get a shot at farming either. At best we’re sleep walking back into feudalism, at worst we’re being route marched there.

    2. A little cynical, yes, Paul. See Andy Mitchell’s comment below. Some farm conservation measures may impose little cost or inconvenience on farmers (e.g skylark patches) and there is a good case for making such things compulsory but at least in the Orkney case it would appear that doing the right thing for the corncrake might impose a significant economic cost on the farmer. Not all farmers are wealthy grain barons who have grown fat on public subsidy and I’d suggest that those that live within the current range of the corncrake will tend to be those living a more hand to mouth existence. If their incomes are already stretched it is asking quite a lot for them to bear significant costs for a public good and many can perhaps not afford to give a toss for this bird however delightful they may or may not consider it to be.

  2. Curlew are in the same boat. Most of the lowland population has been destroyed. Nothing to do with crow and foxes just silage! Hearing the adults scream as a field is mowed is an awful experience. As the RSPB proved back in the 1980s breeding birds on rich farm land produce far more young than acid waste breeding in the uplands but all their work is now concentrated on these uplands! Is it because the low ground is now so contaminated with poison that 80% of all wader food has been removed [Newton]? That would mean every nature reserve with breeding lowland waders are organic but sadly that is not true either!

  3. Unfortunately, the scheme offering payments for delayed mowing has never found favour here in Orkney. The problem is that most of the Corncrakes in Orkney are on the northern isles. As one farmer said to me “Does your payment cover the cost of feed and its transport to the island in the winter when my cattle run out of food because I delayed mowing until it was too wet?” The answer is a resounding no. The scheme needed to be changed to suit local conditions but this has never been done. Result? Corncrakes in Orkney are going nowhere but down, I’m afraid.

    1. Andy – thanks. That is a shame isn’t it. But I guess that the proximity of lots of ‘bad’ habitat to lots of ‘good’ habitat on Orkney is also an issue. But you are right, or your farmer is right too, getting the blunt instrument of policy to work well in all places at all times is never going to be possible.

  4. “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.”

    Hear hear. It is perfectly fair to criticize the RSPB for its approach to some issues – notably the persecution of raptors on shooting estates – and to prod and cajole it to develop more bite, but sometimes I find some of the criticism in comments spills over into the intemperate and unfair. There is no doubt that bird life (and other wildlife) would be very much poorer in the UK if the RSPB did not exist. Who else is capable of having an impact on so many different fronts?
    The case of the Corncrake, though, illustrates the fact that the RSPB and all other conservation organisations and conservationists are faced with a sisyphean task where every step forward can easily be followed by two back as circumstances change. Against such a background and with enemies such as YFTB, the Daily Telegraph and others forever trying to fling mud in the hope that some sticks, it is important to maintain solidarity, keep our criticism civil and constructive and reserve our attacks for those who genuinely deserve them such as the people who actually carry out raptor persecution on the moors and their representative organisations who either deny it is happening or condemn it ineffectually whilst doing nothing to stop it.

  5. Why is it OK for everyone to move forward except farmers with silage making.
    Everyone enjoys for instance better cars,housing,heating,better wages,better working conditions and dozens of other examples but we continually get John Miles who does not understand things continuing this boring silage stance.
    Here are the facts..If it was possible to produce a reasonable profit on mainland UK farms with no more work than silage farmers might consider it.
    Whereas farmers can get top quality silage with feeding value far superior to hay at something like a hundred acres a day that hundred acres of hay even if by chance you got a perfect week would almost certainly take all week and he would have a much worse feeding value product after much more work.
    Farmers have no choice but to run a profitable business for their family and to be able to continue financially.
    Grow up John you should know better with a grown up family.
    For goodness sake do not come the one about you know about farming or obviously you would have understood this ages ago.
    Another gripe is somehow some people seem to consider Grouse moor owners as farmers.
    What nothing could be further from the truth.

  6. John Watson,best get to Iona.Trouble is they have two things they are brilliant at being secretive and they seem to throw their creek sound something like rubbing your finger over a comb like a ventriloquist so that the sound seems yards away from where they really are.

  7. We found the Corncrake on our first day back in May this year on Colonsay. Saw it several time afterwards. It seems to be doing ok there though other species seemed very low in numbers compared with Tiree back in 1992.

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