Back from verge of extinction only to face a new threat

The Scotsman – John Ross

A FARMING crisis in Scotland could again threaten a rare bird that has fought back from the brink of extinction.

Corncrake numbers have risen to their highest in nearly three decades of monitoring, according to RSPB Scotland.

The population here now stands at 1,273 calling males, but bird numbers have seriously declined throughout most of western Europe.

The turnaround in Scotland follows a recovery programme started by the RSPB and crofters in 1993, when there were only 470 calling males in the UK and the species was in danger of being wiped out.

But experts say the species continues to be threatened by changes to agricultural support systems and a growing crisis in Scottish livestock farming.

The environmentally-fragile, peripheral areas in the north and west, particularly the islands, have already suffered some loss of cattle farming, as it has become ever more economically marginal and, in some cases, unviable.

The June agricultural census shows the number of cattle in Scotland has fallen to 1,898,280, from 2,078,900 in 1997. Sheep numbers have also dropped, from 9,563,190 to 7,490,870.

The RSPB says the environmental consequences of losing cattle from these areas would be severe. In addition to the grazing benefits these systems of farming produce, loss of cattle also means declining hay production and mixed farm practices, depriving corncrakes and other wildlife of the food resources and habitats they need.

Livestock diseases, and the restrictions that have resulted from disease control elsewhere in the UK, along with uncertainty for the future of support systems, are threatening to accelerate the decline into a “freefall”.

Stuart Housden, the director of RSPB Scotland, said: ”

The corncrake and many other important species are very much dependent on extensive cattle rearing practices that characterise much of the Highlands and Islands.

“This type of farming has become ever more economically marginal because of changes in agricultural support systems. If we are to see this wildlife flourish, funding streams like the Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme and Rural Stewardship Scheme must be both retained and targeted to ensure that these extensive farming systems continue to produce benefits for the rich array of species and biodiversity found here.”

The corncrake’s strongholds are in the inner Hebridean and Argyll islands. Tiree’s population of calling males has increased by 23.4 per cent from 316 in 2006 to 390 in 2007.

Together with Coll, Iona, Mull, Oronsay, Colonsay and Islay, this area accounts for 59 per cent of the total Scottish population. The calling male population in the Outer Hebrides was also up by 22 birds, compared with last year.

• CORNCRAKES migrate to Scotland in April and May from sub-Saharan Africa, where they spend the winter.

They are found in herbs and tall grass, particularly in hay meadows.

Numbers of the birds began to fall towards the end of the 19th century. Although it was recognised that numbers varied from year to year, a link was noticed between the decline of bird numbers and the increase in the mechanisation of mowing.

By 1972, the corncrake had disappeared from most of mainland Britain, and population declines continued, except in Lewis, Coll and Tiree, where suitable hay meadow habitats and late mowing dates allow successful breeding.

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Filed under animals, biodiversity, birds, conservation, endangered, environment, extinction, nature, ornithology, UK, wildlife, zoology

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