Sunday book review – The Corncrake by Frank Rennie


This book is about a bird which seems to be trying quite hard to go extinct but which was, about a century ago, a very familiar part of the countryside throughout the UK.  The Corncrake is a bird that once lived in long grass and other dense vegetation right across Europe and into Asia but relatively natural grasslands are now few and far between.  Mowing (especially early mowing in the Corncrake’s breeding season) and grazing (especially heavy grazing (and trampling)) have done for the Corncrake in much of its former range.

Corncrakes are rarely seen, but where they occur, they are often heard. I used to pass a village called Tempsford, on the A1 north of Sandy, on my way into work and that place, in an early twentieth century book on the birds of Bedfordshire had the reputation for such an abundance of Corncrakes that their incessant calling at night kept the villagers awake. It’s a long time since a Bedfordshire villager has ben kept awake by Corncrakes but one can imagine that in the meadows near the Great Ouse all that time ago they were common.

The author knows this bird mostly from the north of Scotland and its islands, where wet weather and the crofting system give Corncrakes more of a chance of raising several broods of young than elsewhere. Corncrakes lay several times if they get the chance and have decent-sized clutches of eggs – they need to because their annual survival, once fledged, is low. I’ve heard them described as ‘the bamboo of the bird world’ which is an exaggeration but captures their lifestyle in a phrase. 

I’ve seen Corncrakes in flight only briefly and not many times – they don’t look very good at it!  And yet, this is a sub-Saharan migrant.  No wonder their survival is pretty low, but until we managed the land so that there are lots of areas of long grass which then get cut, mechanically, in the Corncrake breeding season this enigma of a bird rubbed along pretty well with us. Down the road from me, John Clare knew this bird well enough and wrote of it in terms that showed he really did have first hand experience of it.

Corncrakes are in trouble and are fascinating. We know enough of their ecology to prevent further declines and create increases in numbers (that’s been done with some success in the last 30 years) but the world is not a great place for a short-lived migratory bird that lives in long grass that is cut for hay or silage.

The author of this book has compiled the information about Corncrakes from a very thorough, it seems to me, review of the literature. He is the Professor of Sustainable Rural Development in the Highlands and Islands University but looking at his c.v. and publications, he is not primarily a scientist and he has not published a long string of scientific papers on this species. But this is a good book – it covers this bird’s biology well and makes it understandable.  The references and an even longer, separate list for further reading, are copious. You’ll find a large number of papers in the reference list by my former colleagues at RSPB and Birdwatch Ireland – the likes of Cadbury, Donaghy, Green, Tyler, Schaffer, Stowe, Williams and others.  

This book is a good read and a fine achievement, quite possibly a labour of love, made more possible by covid and lockdown.

The cover is very nice, I think, and it is clearly and highly appropriately a Corncrake. I’d give it 8/10, no 8.5/10, no, I really like it, I’ll give it 9/10.

The Corncrake: an ecology of an enigma by Frank Rennie is published by Whittles Publishing


8 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Corncrake by Frank Rennie”

  1. As I recall, in addition to the disastrous effect of changing grassland management here, corncrakes have also suffered along with quail from a heavy burden of shooting/netting on the north coast of Egypt.
    It must have been wonderful in those bygone days when the species was common across lowland England and not just a rare denizen of a few Atlantic islands in Scotland.

  2. My last Corncrake (flying) was over 49 years ago between No Man’s Land and the coast in South East Cornwall, used to be a ecologically rich farming area, the farms are still there of course but the Corncrake is long gone, sadly very rare to even be seen as a passage migrant today in the South West.

  3. I’ve yet to see or hear a corncrake, but I was literally dumbstruck when a ranger friend told me that she knew people who still remembered hearing them in Falkirk District, it was almost like being told tigers once lived here. That’s another thing about corncrake a ground nesting bird in perilous decline, but it did so decades before the same happened with lapwing and curlew. Doesn’t that indicate the basic problem is with various changes in agricultural practice over the years not predation as some would like us to believe?

  4. Some years ago I met old men in Llanon West Wales who remembered them and their cry but no more.
    I was taught that when mowing for hay that you cut the headlands first all the way round the field then mowed strips up and down. I was later told that this was bad for ground nesting birds (and mammals) as they couldn’t get out of the way of the mower without crossing open land that had already been mown. Hopefully things have changed. The move to silage from hay and earlier cutting was probably the clincher.

    1. Gary
      Crofters in the Western Isles were paid through a-e schemes to mow from centre of field outwards to reduce losses.

      1. There is a great story relating to the cunning of some people. Apparently the conservationists were paying crofters for each recording of corncrakes presented to them, and guess what? The recording was well copied. I also know there was a bounty on trapped mink after the animal rights bods set them free from the hateful mink farms. But the said bounty encouraged some profitable backyard breeding schemes. You don’t make much money from crofting so ‘every little helps’! Might all be apocryphal but I did spend a great deal of time there in the nineties and heard the stories often.

        1. Thank you for making me laugh harder than I have for weeks! ‘You don’t make much money from crofting…’ absolutely hilarious!!! They receive a phenomenal array of subsidies, grants, low interest loans etc, etc, etc ad nauseum purely for being crofters – it pretty much gets handed to them on a plate. Politicians and Govt Depts fall over themselves to how how those ‘poor’ crofters who are still somehow affected by the clearances (which weren’t limited to the Highlands, but let’s not mention that) are now being made up to. Even the non crofters in Stornoway admit ‘the crofters get everything.’ You didn’t fall for their sob stories did you?

          I also have to correct you about mink in the western Isles, principally Lewis. Mink were escaping from fur farms and breeding in the wild decades before animal rights activists illegally released them – but pointing the finger at them shifts ultimate blame from the fur industry and allows some to puff themselves up with righteous indignation about ‘that lot’. There’s also the point that years before fur farming was made illegal in this country it was clear it was going to the wall and there’s a high likelihood some of these ‘releases’ were in reality insurance jobs.

          I’d love to see where on the Isles you could secretly keep and breed mink – it’s hard enough to find a place for an au naturel pee – and the idea that it would be worth a crofter’s time and effort to do that for the money involved (when filling forms is so much more productive) is rather silly.

  5. Corncrake are possibly making a tiny come back. I believe there has been a project releasing them along the Nene and Ouse in Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.
    I heard one calling in Northamptonshire a few years back and caught a glimpse of what I believe was a Corncrake about a month ago. Again in Northamptonshire.
    I was lucky enough to be kept awake by one in Orkney in 2017.

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