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Cambridgeshire Corncrake Calling

Big Brothers Help Corncrake Regain Toehold in English Countryside

A pioneering conservation project is restoring a corner of England to a time when an effectively-extinct farmland bird was a familiar inhabitant of the English countryside.

A project to reintroduce the corncrake – a dove-sized ground-nesting bird of farmland – to England has met with its best success yet with four male corncrakes uttering their distinctive rasping ‘crex-crex’ calls from one small part of Cambridgeshire – the first time that such a strong chorus has been heard from this migratory bird in England for many decades. The corncrake has declined in England and much of Europe because of intensive farming methods.Amazingly, two of the four returning birds are brothers, released as chicks last year. These birds were among the heaviest of 78 chicks to be released last year at the RSPB’s Nene Washes reserve, near Whittlesey, after being captive-bred at Whipsnade Wild Animal Park. The third male is a half-brother to the other two brothers, while the fourth male is a bird of unknown origin, possibly one from Scotland.

The corncrake was once widespread across Britain and Ireland, but this elusive bird – which spends each winter in Africa – was forced out of many of its former haunts as fewer people and more machines cut the bird’s grassland habitats. Before the project began in 2001, corncrakes were restricted in the UK to islands off the north and west coasts of Scotland, where intense conservation effort is helping to restore their numbers.The project – a partnership between RSPB, English Nature, Zoological Society of London, and more recently Pensthorpe Conservation Trust – aims to re-introduce the corncrake to the Nene Washes. The wet grasslands of the washes are being managed to provide returning corncrakes with optimal habitat for nesting. The project involves captive-rearing corncrake chicks and releasing them on the site in the hope that they survive the perils of the journey to Africa to return the following spring to nest.

Dr Mark Avery, of the RSPB, said: The corncrake has suffered terribly across Europe, undergoing massive declines both in the UK and the continent. Increasingly intensified farming has pushed this bird to the margins of our land, but it is great that in one small corner of Cambridgeshire we are able to give the corncrake a second chance Its return as a regular breeding bird in England is a step closer with this news.Dr Phil Grice, of English Nature, said: Corncrakes once bred in virtually every county in England, but by 1980 all regular breeding had stopped. We hope that this superb result will mean that Cambridgeshire will become a stronghold for corncrakes to re-colonise the rest of England

Emily Funnell, UK Native Species Manager for ZSL, said: We are delighted that four male corncrakes have returned to the release site this year. This is a great success for the project and demonstrates the skill and dedication of ZSL's Bird Team at Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, who have continued to breed strong and healthy corncrake chicks for release into the wild. This project shows that captive breeding and release can be an excellent tool for conservation if a rare and threatened species is unlikely to recover on its own.

Bill Jordan, Director of Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, commented: I am thrilled Pensthorpe can contribute in a meaningful way to such an important conservation project, working alongside the dedicated experts. We are excited about our role in providing new chicks to the programme to help restore these important birds to their native habitat

4th July 2014