After 80 years away, Norfolk corncrakes are making a comeback
PUBLISHED: 17:07 13 July 2018 | UPDATED: 17:07 13 July 2018
After an absence of 80 years, corncrakes are being returned to the Norfolk countryside – and farmers are playing a crucial role in the breeding project which aims to spark this secretive bird’s resurgence. CHRIS HILL reports.
Amid the “hoot” of the tawny owl and the shrill “peewit” of the lapwing, a strange rasping call can be heard across Norfolk meadows during these long summer nights.
And every time this unlikely song rings out, it signals a success for a breeding project aiming to bring an endangered farmland bird back to its traditional East Anglian habitat.
Corncrakes were once widespread throughout the UK, but their numbers declined catastrophically during the 20th century due to the mechanised and earlier mowing of grass crops – destroying the tall vegetation which is the bird’s spring nesting habitat.
Conservationists say the species has been extinct in East Anglia for more than 80 years.
But now the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, based at the nature reserve near Fakenham, is releasing captive-bred corncrakes back into the Wensum valley, with the help of neighbouring farmers to ensure the birds have the right vegetation in which to nest, feed and breed.
Chrissie Kelley, head of species management at Pensthorpe, said the reserve’s partners in the Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group, a group of 15 landowners managing 6,000ha of land, would be crucial to the project’s success.
“Getting enthusiastic farmers on board is vital,” she said. “That is why it is exciting for us, as part of the Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group, to see if we can work collaboratively with these farmers and landowners to get the habitat and land management right to encourage these wonderful, rare, farmland birds back to the area.
“When we are choosing a release site it is really important that it is a habitat with enough cover and good food sources for when the birds come back from migration. Ideally we want this low-level grazed wetland meadows, full of insects and wildflowers, with plenty of nettle beds.
“This sort of habitat runs all the way through the Wensum valley, which is why we think this project could really work.
“Here we have got lovely variable sward, and low-level grazing from cattle which means the corncrakes can run through the grass but have enough cover when they come back from the end of April and May. So it is ideal, and it is not going to be cut for silage, which is one of the problems the corncrakes have had in the past – they come back into this fantastic habitat which then gets destroyed.
“If we can get the grazing management right we can create fantastic habitats for corncrakes. Some of it is here already. What we need is more of it.”
The project aims to release around 160 birds this year. The corncrakes are bred and reared at Pensthorpe, and given health checks and leg rings before they are released so that they can be identified when the adult birds, hopefully, return after migrating to Africa.
Bill Jordan, who owns Pensthorpe with his wife Deb, said: “Corncrakes have not been in mainland England in bulk since the 1930s. We have lost 97pc of our grasslands since the 1930s and if we can get that back into health and get the soil health right for corncrakes, then other birds will follow as well when we start thinking on a landscape scale.
“I think this is important because the cluster groups are beginning to form and this seems to be the sort of project which we can tackle with a big area of land. We are up to 6,000ha in our cluster group so we can provide enough of the grassland, if it is managed properly, to get the corncrake back again. Everyone has got to work together on this.”
The corncrake is a farmland bird species related to moorhens and coots – and it is on the Red List of conservation priorities in the UK.
Birds in the breeding programme are incubated, hatched and reared at Pensthorpe, where the team includes a dedicated corncrake “nanny” who takes on the job of full-time carer when the young start hatching, from the first feed at 6am through to a last feed at 10pm.
At around 14 days old, the independent chicks are given a veterinary check before transfer to rearing pens close to the release site near North Elmham.
When they are around 35 days old, the youngsters are released into suitable habitat between June and August, after they are measured and fitted with a BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) leg ring which will identify them when they return from their wintering grounds in Africa.
The project is now in its third year, and so far this summer 16 calling birds have been heard in East Anglia.
Chrissie Kelley, head of species management at Pensthorpe, said catching the elusive birds to identify them can be a challenge.
“We can only catch the males,” she said. “They are very secretive birds, and although the female will call, she won’t be attracted to a call in the field.
“But we can catch the male with a technique where we pretend to be a corncrake in the dead of night and he will fly across to see us off his territory and, in the meantime, we have put a mist net up so we can catch him and find out who he is.
“On a good year we would expect to get maybe a 10pc return rate. But the real measure of success is to catch a bird that is not rung. Then we know the birds have found a mate and bred successfully in the wild, and those birds have come back here.”
The birds return from their African wintering grounds in spring, and all the way through to July you can hear the distinctive, repetitive “crex crex” call which gives the species its scientific name.
• If you hear a corncrake “crexing” in Norfolk, email firstname.lastname@example.org.