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Better By The Dozen…

…Conservation Project Meets Initial Success

A reintroduction project to bring the corncrake back to England has met with initial success. This year there are 12 male corncrakes calling at the reintroduction site – the RSPB Nene Washes reserve in Cambridgeshire – making this probably the greatest single concentration of corncrakes heard in southern England for about 80 years.

The corncrake was formerly a widespread bird of haymeadows and crops across the UK, and Europe, but this dove-sized bird – a distant relative of the crane - has not been able to cope with the mechanization of grass cutting, which destroys nests and young birds.

By 1920 the bird had already become very scarce in southern England. The decline continued through the 20th Century until, by the 1990s, corncrakes were restricted almost entirely to the islands on the north and west coasts of Scotland, where a less intensive form of agriculture – crofting – had allowed the bird to retain a restricted foothold in the UK.In 2001, a joint project – involving Natural England, the RSPB and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and, more recently, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust – was set-up to reintroduce corncrakes to England, at the RSPB’s Nene Washes nature reserve in Cambridgeshir.

The project involves releasing hand-reared corncrakes, bred at ZSLWhipsnade Zoo, after acclimatisation in release pens at the Nene Washes. Corncrakes are only summer visitors to the UK, so in autumn the birds migrate to central Africa to spend the winter. Their return to the release site can only be detected by the loud rasping calls of the adult males trying to attract a mate. Releases began in earnest in 2003 and corncrakes bred in the wild at the Nene Washes for the first time for many decades in 2004. Since then, a total of 23 adult male corncrakes have been counted at the reserve. A sample of 11 of these have been temporarily captured to check for numbered identification rings placed on the chicks’ legs before release. Nine of the 11 have been zoo-bred birds set free in the previous summer. However, two males were found not be ringed – probably the result of breeding in the wild in the previous year.Dr Mark Avery is the RSPB’s Conservation Director, he said: “It is a small but significant miracle that these birds, raised by keepers in a zoo, are capable of migrating successfully to Africa and back. Restoring lost wildlife is often difficult and it is better not to lose it in the first place. The RSPB-led corncrake conservation programme in Scotland demonstrates that declining populations can be turned around by concerted action. This re-introduction means that we can try to spread that success and return the corncrake to places where its chances of recolonising naturally are slight”.

Sir Martin Doughty, Chair of Natural England, said: “The increase in numbers of corncrake is a testament to the site's management and highlights the critical role that habitat management plays when reintroducing species. The combined efforts of many partners including farmers on the surrounding land, the RSPB and funding from Natural England, has made this happen. By cutting the meadows late in August to minimise disturbance, we have made a 'corncrake-friendly' habitat that is critical to the success of this project. Re-establishing the corncrake in England is a priority action in the nation's Biodiversity Action Plan and we will continue to work with partners over the coming years to make this happen," concluded Sir Martin.Jamie Graham is the senior keeper in charge of corncrake breeding at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. He said: "This is fantastic news and it's great to know that birds we have bred here have made it back safely from migration. It means the project is showing very promising signs that a sustainable population is being created at the Nene Washes from a captive bred group.

"ZSL has many years’ experience of captive breeding at its zoos which has helped to conserve endangered species. The intensive corncrake rearing programme - which includes hourly feeds for the little chicks and constant monitoring of the breeding pens - has already shown that captive-bred birds can be reintroduced to the wild and give a huge boost to the future of a threatened but very much loved species."
Tim Nevard, of the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, said: "We are passionate about the work we do with corncrakes and countryside restoration, and it's fantastic to see the culmination of everyone's hard work in the return of this year's 12 crakes! They are the conservationist's 'canary in the coal mine' and this year's return means that we are finally beginning to get parts of the English countryside back into ecological working order,” he said.The Nene Washes are some of the finest floodplain meadows in the country, home to wintering waterfowl and breeding wetland birds like shoveler and snipe. The RSPB manages several hundred acres of the Washes, using the traditional methods of grazing livestock and hay-making, while taking special care to protect corncrakes and other nesting birds.

Corncrakes, which like to inhabit areas of long grass and haymeadows, are rarely seen but male corncrakes have a distinctive, rasping ‘crex-crex’ call enabling conservationists to count the birds and assess populations.

Expanding the range of the corncrake is a commitment of a government-backed wildlife action plan, but without reintroduction to suitable sites, it seemed unlikely that the corncrake would be able to recolonise new sites away from north and west Scotland.

In 2007, there were 1,278 corncrakes in Great Britain, up from around 600 calling males in 1998, and up from 1,042 in 2004.

This project forms part of the 'Action for Birds in England' programme, a partnership between Natural England and RSPB, which takes conservation action for the country's most threatened bird species.

4th July 2014