Conservationists bring back the Corncrake to England


Ornithological history will be made today (Friday 29 August) as a partnership of conservation organisations complete an attempt to reintroduce one of Europe's most threatened birds to England after an absence of many years. The RSPB, English Nature and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) will be releasing the last four captive-bred Corncrake chicks at the RSPB's Nene Washes reserve, near Peterborough, as part of an initiative to re-establish the Corncrake as a regular breeding bird in England.


The Corncrake - the world's most threatened bird to breed regularly in the UK - started to disappear from the English countryside more than a century ago, because of the introduction of more mechanized and intensive farming methods. Today, this relative of the more-familiar Coot and Moorhen only breeds in Britain in north and west Scotland, where conservationists have been working intensively with local crofters and landowners to ensure the bird's continued survival.

The secretive Corncrake prefers to nest in hay meadows and other grasslands, especially those with dense vegetation. Historical developments in farming practices, particularly the mechanized cutting of hay, destroyed many nests. Later, other changes in farming methods, such as the switch from hay to silage production, effectively forced the bird's extinction in southern Britain as a regular breeding bird. Since the 1950s the bird has only bred irregularly in England.

Phil Grice, senior ornithologist with English Nature, said: "This represents a turning point for this globally-threatened bird. Historically, the call of the Corncrake was a familiar sound across Britain and Ireland. Sadly, as in the rest of Europe, the needs of this bird are incompatible with modern farming and so its numbers have crashed, requiring intensive conservation efforts everywhere it breeds."

Peter Newbery, species policy officer with the RSPB, said: "Although the Corncrake is continuing to slowly increase its numbers in Scotland, thanks to intense and sustained conservation effort, we realised the bird needed help to recolonise England. Hopefully, the call of the Corncrake will once more be a feature of at least one small part of the English countryside."

John Ellis, ZSL's curator of birds, said: "ZSL works on a range of global conservation projects, including UK native species. It's been an exciting summer at Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, as the captive-bred birds will hopefully go on to create the next generation of Corncrakes in England."

The four chicks released today are the last of 55 to be released this year. It is hoped the young birds will soon migrate to Africa, where Corncrakes regularly winter, and return to the Nene Washes next spring to begin nesting. Based on the success of the first full year of the project it is hoped that the project will release up to 100 birds a year for the next five years.

The RSPB and English Nature will be ensuring that the Nene Washes will be managed for the benefit of Corncrake. Potentially-damaging farming operations, such as early grass-cutting, will be completed after the birds have finished nesting.

The Corncrake Project is a collaboration between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ZSL's Whipsnade Wild Animal Park and English Nature.