BELMULLET, Ireland – The call of the corncrake – a small, shy bird related to the coot – is harsh and monotonous, but for older generations it was a favorite summertime sound in Ireland, evoking wistful memories of warm weather, haymaking and romance Nights.
Today, however, its call is rarely heard outside of a few scattered enclaves along the west coast, like Belmullet, a remote peninsula in County Mayo. Once numerous, the birds became threatened across much of their Western European range in the late 20th century, largely due to changes in agricultural practices that deprived them of breeding grounds.
“Older people still talk about coming home from dances on summer nights and hearing the corncrakes calling from the fields around them,” said Anita Donaghy, Birdwatch Ireland’s deputy director of conservation. “They are heard of making special trips to places in the west where they will hear the corncrake again. It’s sad that many young people have never heard of it.”
But there is hope for the return of the Corn Crake’s call. In recent years, conservationists, government agencies and farmers have banded together to try to reverse the decline in corncrake numbers – and preserve the corncrake’s “kek kek” for new generations.
Efforts to save the corncrake in Ireland began in the 1990s and included banning early mowing of meadows where corncrakes might breed. However, these rules were often opposed by farmers who wanted to use the grass as animal feed.
A new government program, Corncrake Life, is taking a more proactive, collaborative approach, working with farmers to preserve and even recreate the kind of rugged grasslands alongside the Atlantic where the long-necked, rounded-bodied tawny birds mate and roost her boys up.
The 25 hectares owned by Feargal Ó Cuinneagán, a veterinarian and corncrake enthusiast near Belmullet, once grew only grass, but now it’s full of stinging nettles cultivated on rotting bales of straw.
John Carey, director of Corncrake Life, the government-run program, said such efforts were the result of changing attitudes. “Farmers have been told for generations that nettles are weeds. You are dirty. Away with them,” he said. “For farmers they are difficult to sell, but for corncrakes they are really good cover.”
The fascinating world of birds
As if to prove his point, a male corncrake began calling from a nearby bed of nettles.
Corncrake Life started 18 months ago with a pilot group of 50 farmers in counties Donegal, Galway and Mayo on the Atlantic coast. Seventy-five percent of Corncrake Life’s original five-year budget of €5.9 million, about $6 million, came from the European Union.
Corncrakes evolved to nest and feed on the ground in the loose grass and weeds of natural flood plains, and bird numbers are still high in parts of Asia and Eastern Europe.
But also in Western Europe, the corncrake has adapted over thousands of years to similar conditions that were created by the traditional, less intensive cultivation of grassland meadows and field edges. There the grasses were long enough to provide protection from predators but thin enough for the corncrake to walk through. Although corncrakes are good fliers and migrate from winter feeding grounds in Africa every year, their instinct when threatened is to run away and hide.
As agriculture modernized and industrial farming expanded, artificial fertilizers allowed farmers to mow their meadows earlier in the year, affecting the corncrake’s breeding season in mid and late summer. Their habitats have been wiped out in many places in Western Europe. But in remote coastal areas like Belmullet and some other enclaves in England, Ireland, Scandinavia and Scotland, bad land and wet climates delayed the arrival of industrial agriculture, allowing corncrakes to survive.
Although their numbers have stabilized at an estimated 150 breeding pairs in recent years, the Irish population is estimated to have declined by 96 percent since the 1970s and those that survive remain endangered.
In such wet and windy parts of western Ireland, farms of 20 to 40 acres are usually small and mainly adapted for raising small numbers of sheep or cattle. Few farmers earn a full-time living off their land, and alternative sources of income are often welcome.
In exchange for annual payments of up to €304 per hectare for the best vigilant-king-friendly preparations, farmers must plant part of their land with crops intended to provide shelter for corncrake breeding rather than food. The rest of the grassland is ideally reverted to a traditional meadow where multiple species of native grasses mingle with wildflowers and weeds. Artificial fertilizers and weed killers are not permitted.
“We don’t reward farmers for having a corncrake on their land, we reward them for having the habitat,” Mr Carey said. “Even if no corncrake appears, you get skylarks, meadow pipits, all kinds of flowers, invertebrates and butterflies. This country’s greatest value is not in food production, but in public goods and services – clean water, biodiversity, carbon sequestration. It’s time to pay for it.”
Patrick Mangan, 57, a farmer and corncrake enthusiast, recently stood in his partially re-wilded meadow on the Belmullet Peninsula, proudly pointing to the nettles, cow parsley, tall grasses and wildflowers where corncrakes are once again growing in numbers. At one point, the belmullet population dropped to just four calling males; 38 were counted in 2021.
“I remember in the 1970s this area was full of corncrakes,” said Mr. Mangan. “Then farmers started mowing grass earlier and that ruined it until the last corncrake in that area was right here, on this land. The corncrake was almost exterminated here. And if he is, we’ll never get him back.”
In corncrake habitats, farmers are asked to reverse their normal mowing practice and start mowing grass in the middle of their fields and work their way to the edge. This gives ground-dwelling birds the opportunity to hide. Shane McIntyre, a belmullet mower contractor who volunteers with Corncrake Life, has invented a new “flush bar” that attaches to the front of tractors — a boom with jingling chains — to deter corncrakes and other wildlife before the mowers They catch.
Last month in Fanad, at the northern tip of County Donegal, a farmer mowing his field discovered a corncrake’s nest containing 11 intact eggs. Under a new protocol, the eggs were driven 300 miles across the country to Fota Wildlife Park in County Cork. There they were hatched in a special facility to be released back into the field where they were found.
The park is also home to a small population of corncrakes that breed in captivity. When the program was first announced in 2013, the park was surprised to be contacted by numerous farmers hoping to get birds to recolonize their land.
“It’s part of the story. It’s in their memory,” Sean McKeown, the park’s director, said of the farmers. “The good old days when they were young.”