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Monday, August 9, 1999 Published at 01:25 GMT 02:25 UK


Manx corncrakes croak anew

The secretive corncrake has vanished from mainland Britain

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

A bird once common throughout the British Isles, the corncrake, has been spotted in the Isle of Man for the first time since 1988.

A mother bird and eight chicks were seen on the Close Sartfield nature reserve owned by the Manx Wildlife Trust, Treisht Vanninagh y Dooghys Feie.

A trust volunteer, John Thorpe, said: "I'd been looking out for corncrakes all summer and had almost given up hope, when I noticed something creeping through the grass in one of the trust's hay meadows."

"I assumed it was a rat but, to my surprise, it stood bolt upright and was revealed as an adult corncrake.

"It made off through the grass, followed by eight part-grown fluffy black chicks about six inches high."

Modern farming deters breeding

The meadows at Close Sartfield are managed traditionally - a late hay cut, followed by light grazing.

It is modern farming methods that prevent the birds from breeding successfully in most parts of Britain.

Corncrakes breed over much of northern and central Europe, but for a century they have been in decline in Britain, and latterly in Ireland as well.

Their breeding sites here are restricted almost entirely to some of the islands off the north and west coasts of Scotland.

The male birds usually arrive here in late April or early May and the females soon after.

[ image: A new generation set to recolonise Britain?]
A new generation set to recolonise Britain?
At the end of the breeding season, in September, they head for north Africa, and reach the south of the continent by December.

They are secretive birds, needing tall vegetation (more than 20 cm high) which they can walk through.

They also need tall grass, typical of hay meadows, for nesting and for rearing their chicks.

One threat to their survival here has been the conversion of their habitat to arable pasture, silage fields or scrub.

Another is the mechanisation of mowing, which destroys large numbers of nests and chicks each summer.

The trust says mowing a field from the centre to the edge, not the other way round, can reduce the number of chicks killed from 35% to about 7%.

The corncrake's distinctive "crek" call was reputed to have kept country people awake on summer nights. Today, few will hear a single bird.

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