‘We have an obligation to ensure their future’: Protecting corncrake and Ireland’s islands

The call of the corncrake used to herald the arrival of spring. But, nowadays, most people will likely never hear their ‘crex crex’ song, which gives the corncrake its Latin name, and sounds like drawing a comb across a matchbox.

“The corncrake is unique as a breeding bird in rural Ireland and has been a part of our heritage for many generations,” says Denis Strong, divisional manager with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

“We have an obligation to ensure their future in Ireland, as extinction is forever.”

Rapid decline

The bird used to be widespread in Ireland, but there are now only 151 breeding pairs in total found along the north coast and west of Ireland, declining by 85% since the 1970s. Changes in agricultural practices and modern mechanised machinery have led to the rapid decline.

Denis oversees the delivery of the Corncrake Grant Scheme (CGS), a voluntary grant scheme available for landowners with corncrakes calling on or near their land.

And, from January 2020, he also oversees the new LIFE Atlantic Crex project working on conservation efforts, which will run for five years. The project aims to deliver a 20% increase in the corncrake population by 2024.

“All the core breeding areas are in private ownership, so the goal is to stop the decline by raising awareness and expanding the core areas by habitat management, working with key landowners.

“The public have also become important to this project, as they send in reports of birds heard outside the core areas,” stated Denis.

The EU LIFE programme has ensured the future of the corncrake as a successful breeding bird in Ireland, providing €4.3 million in funding to the NPWS.

“This fund is a vital lifeline and enables us to draw up long-term plans for crex conservation. The impact of our work to date has ensured the survival of this unique breeding bird and we hope to continue this good work into the future.”

Farming on the edge

The iconic Aran landscape draws visitors from all over the world, so protecting the beauty and the quality of the islands is of utmost importance. Despite being only 46km² in area (Phoenix Park is longer than the biggest island, Inis Mór) the Aran Islands are home to 500 plant species – 50% of all Irish flora.

The Aran Islands contain 17 different increasingly rare habitat types listed in the EU Habitats Directive.

The AranLIFE project, which ran for four years under the EU’s LIFE+ programme, worked with local farmers to support traditional island farming practices and help maintain the islands’ significant natural and cultural heritage.

AranLIFE project manager, Patrick McGurn, says the project was set up to harness farmers’ local knowledge and combine it with expertise from scientists. The aim was to improve the quality of farm habitats on the Aran Islands.

“There are presently over 200 farm businesses on the islands, so agriculture is an important part of island life,” says Patrick. “The islands are also vital breeding grounds for several vital plant species, bird species such as the lapwing, and even varieties of butterflies and bees.

“The farm plans were developed by the project team and the farmers who detailed the work to be done in each field and the associated cost of that work.”

The success of the project was only made possible through the €2.4 million funding under the EU’s LIFE+ programme.

Since the start of the project, we have successfully improved the conservation status of 35% of the priority habitats by developing the best management practices.

“Ireland’s offshore islands have, and will have, uncertainty in the future. However, they are very important aspects of Ireland’s culture and the AranLIFE project has been vital in highlighting the natural landscapes of the islands.”