BELMULLET, Ireland – The call of the corncrake – a small, shy bird related to the coot – is loud and monotonous, but for older generations it was a beloved sound of summer in Ireland, evoking melancholy memories of warm weather, haymaking and romantic nights.
Today, however, its call is rarely heard outside of a few scattered enclaves along the west coast, such as Belmullet, a remote peninsula in County Mayo. Once numerous, the birds were threatened in much of their western European range in the late 20th century, mainly due to changes in agricultural practices that deprived them of nesting sites.
“Older people still talk about coming home from dancing on summer evenings and hearing the corncrakes calling from the fields around them,” said Anita Donaghy, assistant director of conservation at Birdwatch Ireland. “You hear that they are making special trips to places in the west where they will hear the corncrake again. It is sad that many young people have never heard of it.”
But there is hope for the return of the Corncrake’s cry. In recent years, conservationists, government agencies and farmers have come together to try to reverse the decline in corncrake numbers — and preserve the corncrake “kek kek” for new generations.
Efforts to save the corncrake in Ireland began in the 1990s and include the ban on early mowing of meadows where corncrakes could breed. However, those rules were often resented by farmers, who wanted to use the grass for animal feed.
A new state-run program, Corncrake Life, is taking a more proactive, collaborative approach, working with farmers to preserve and even recreate the kind of rough meadows along the Atlantic Ocean where the tawny birds, with their long necks and round bodies, mates and raise their young.
The 25 acres of Feargal Ó Cuinneagán, a vet and corncrake enthusiast near Belmullet, once grew only grass, but now full of clumps of nettles grown on rotting bales of straw.
John Carey, director of Corncrake Life, the government-led program, said such efforts were the result of changing attitudes. “For generations, farmers have been told that nettles are weeds. They are dirty. Get rid of them,” he said. “They’re hard to sell for farmers, but they’re a really good cover for corncrakes.”
The fascinating world of birds
As if to prove his point, a male corncrake began calling from a nearby nettle bed.
Corncrake Life started 18 months ago with a pilot group of 50 farmers in the Atlantic coastal provinces of Donegal, Galway and Mayo. Seventy-five percent of the initial budget of 5.9 million euros, about 6 million dollars, for five years came from the European Union.
The Corncrake has evolved to nest and feed on the ground in the loose grasses and weeds of natural floodplains, and the birds are still going strong in parts of Asia and Eastern Europe.
But in Western Europe, the corncrake has also adapted over thousands of years to the similar conditions created by traditional low-intensity farming in grassland, pastures and field margins. There, the grasses were long enough to provide cover from predators, but thin enough for the corncrake to run through. Although corncrakes are good fliers and migrate every year from winter feeding grounds in Africa, when threatened, their instinct is to run and hide.
As agriculture modernized and industrial farming expanded, fertilizer allowed farmers to mow their pastures earlier in the year, disrupting the corncrake breeding season in mid to late summer. Their habitats were obliterated in many places in Western Europe. But in remote coastal areas such as Belmullet, and a few other enclaves in England, Ireland, Scandinavia and Scotland, poor land and wet climates delayed the advent of industrial farming, allowing corncrakes to survive.
While their numbers have stabilized in recent years at an estimated 150 breeding pairs, Ireland’s population has declined by an estimated 96 percent since the 1970s, and survivors remain vulnerable.
In such wet and windy parts of western Ireland, farms are typically small, covering 20-40 hectares, and mainly suitable for keeping small numbers of sheep or cattle. Few farmers can live off their land full time and alternative sources of income are often welcome.
In exchange for annual payments of up to $304 per hectare for the most thorough corncrake-friendly preparations, farmers are required to plant part of their land with crops not intended for food, but to provide cover for corncrake breeding. The rest of the grassland is ideally left to return to traditional pasture, where multiple species of native grasses intermingle with wildflowers and weeds. Fertilizers and weed killers are not allowed.
“We don’t reward farmers for having a corncrake on their land, we reward them for having the habitat,” said Mr. carey. “Even if a corncrake never showed up, you got skylarks, meadow pipits, all kinds of flowers, invertebrates and butterflies. The greatest value of this country is not in food production, but in public goods and services: clean water, wildlife diversity, carbon sequestration. It’s time we started paying for that.”
Patrick Mangan, 57, a farmer and corncrake enthusiast, recently stood in his partially re-vegetated meadow on the Belmullet Peninsula, pointing proudly to the nettles, cow parsley, tall grasses and wildflowers where the corncrakes are proliferating again. 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 used to start mowing grass, and that ruined it, until the last corncrake in this area was here, on this land. The Corncrake was almost exterminated here. And if it does, we’ll never get it back.”
In corncrake habitats, farmers are asked to reverse their normal mowing practices and start mowing grass in the center of their fields and working toward the edge. This gives ground-dwelling birds the chance to crawl away. Shane McIntyre, a Belmullet mowing contractor who volunteers at Corncrake Life, has invented a new “spool bar” that can be attached to the front of tractors – a boom with jingling chains – to deter corncrakes and other wildlife before the reapers trap them.
Last month, a farmer in Fanad, at the tip of County Donegal in the north, discovered a corncrake nest with 11 intact eggs. Under a new protocol, the eggs were driven 300 miles to Fota Wildlife Park in County Cork, on the other side of the country. There they were hatched in a special facility, only to be released back into the field where they were found.
The park is also home to a small breeding population of corncrakes. When the park first announced the program in 2013, it was surprised to be contacted by numerous farmers who hoped birds would re-colonize their land.
“It’s part of history. It’s in their memory,” Sean McKeown, the park director, said of the farmers. “The good old days, when they were young.”