Once synonymous sound of rural places in summer is silent

Silage, a blessing to farmers, a curse to corncrakes. In wet may meadows of other days there wasn't a parish in County Limerick which the grating call crek-crek, didn't echo.

Now the once synonymous sound of rural places in summer is silent, a generation of young farmers has never heard it.

Figures of the endangered species produced this week in Wings , the BirdWatch Ireland magazine, raises further alarm.

In the ten year period from 1994 to last year, despite trojan conservation work in the Shannon Callows near Banagher and in Donegal and Co. Mayo, only a sixteen bird increase was recorded.
In this decade in the whole country the number went up from 129 to 145.

Significantly in the Shannon Callows, where BirdWatch has engaged in co-operation with local farmers, in a very worthwhile project including late hay cutting to ensure that young birds would have left the nest, the number of calling birds surprisingly dropped from 65 in 1994 to only twenty two in 2004.

Best results were achieved in the islands and in Donegal where there was a total increase from 45 to 90 birds.

In Inishbofin there were 12 birds in 1994, 26 in 2001 and 14 last year.
Numbers peaked in the whole country in 1996, when one hundred and eighty four birds were heard calling.

Locally the corncrake has been indecline since the 1960s, Birds of Clare and Limerick, 1982 to 1991, members of BirdWatch, records that 1982 marked the final breeding season in the Shannon area.
During the 1998 IWC survey there were just three records from Limerick and twelve from Clare. Most were singles calling birds.

More dismal is the picture in the 1988-’81 report with only two callings in Clare and none in Limerick.
While early silage cutting has been a major threat many other methods of modern farming combine to kill off the corncrake.

Arriving here in late April by June, their first clutch will be hatched just as the first cut of silage is ready for the machine.

As the corncrake is a ground nesting bird, with the nest usually located in a meadow, either the eggs of the chicks and even then herself could fall victim to the machine.

A lanky type of bird resembling at times a dishevelled hen pheasant, If by chance it is flushed it flies off low over the herbage with its legs trailing and appearing injured.

At this stage one would wonder how it ever succeeds in accomplishing the long flight from Africa.
Many years ago I had young setter bitch which was named Chance. that was bred by the late Mrs Wheeler in Pallasgreen of Irish Setter fame.

One day Chance, flushed a corncrake and with a puppish innocence almost dragged the bird down by the legs it was flying so low.

The fields around the Watery Road, which included a crocus, all now housing estate, were noted for corncrakes.

All through the night the area echoed to the sound of the calling crackes. While corncrakes usually frequent rain drenched meadows during the day for nesting they prefer dry bracken.

The records show that the first decline in numbers was noted as far back as 1900 (what was responsible then is still a mystery) but after a few years there was a fairly good recovery.
A census conducted in 1978 showed the population at 1,500 down considerably on the Thirties and Forties.

Another census 10 years later showed calling birds at only 1,000.
Since then it has been all the way down hill and at a dangerously sharp drop.
Apart from the problems in their habitats here corncrakes have also been suffering difficulties both enroute and in Africa.

In the 1970s the routes were heavily netted and thousands of birds were caught annually - their flesh a delicacy in some countries.

In Africa, apparently many died in the 1960s and 1970s because of a climate problem.
The corncrake has a very strong game scent and years ago gundog trainers used the bird to train their setters and pointers.

Courtesy of the Limerick Leader
By Tom Browne
21st May 2005