Scottish corncrake numbers fall for second year running

Profile photo of surfbirds

Published by on November 1, 2016 courtesy of RSPB, surfbirds archive

Populations of one of Scotland’s rarest breeding birds, the corncrake, have suffered a fall in numbers for the second year running.

In total, 1059 calling males (1) were counted during RSPB Scotland’s annual survey. That’s a drop of 3% when compared with 2015, and a decrease of 20% compared with 2014.

Corncrakes are elusive, chestnut coloured birds that are related to moorhens and coots. They breed in Scotland during spring and summer before migrating back to Africa for winter.

These birds are only found in a few isolated parts of Scotland, mainly on the islands and the far North West coast. This year, the Isle of Tiree was the biggest stronghold, with 346 calling males recorded.

Corncrake © Jim Swalwell, from the surfbirds galleries.

Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland, said: “The Scottish corncrake has become emblematic of conservation success in Europe. Effective financial support to crofters and farmers has enabled them to deliver what threatened wildlife needs, benefitting nature, farming communities and all of us as a result.

“Following the EU referendum vote we face huge uncertainties regarding the future of agricultural support payments. During this period, the fortunes of our corncrakes, and the High Nature Value farming and crofting systems that support them, stand as a key test for the Scottish Government.

“It is a mistake to think of agri-environment schemes as money that is an optional extra. It pays for investment and activity which is of vital importance to rural communities, tourism and our wildlife. Existing environmental schemes with effective measures for wildlife, and the right payment rates to ensure good uptake by farmers, must remain in place next year and beyond until new arrangements have been developed.”

Corncrakes are naturally quite short-lived birds and if habitat conditions are not good, we know they will quickly disappear from the landscape. As they rarely colonise new locations, once they are lost from an area, re-colonisation can be a major challenge.

Despite these recent declines in corncrake numbers, this species has recovered greatly since conservation efforts, in partnership with crofters and farmers, began in the early 1990s. At that time, populations had dwindled to just 400 calling males.


Corncrakes mainly stay hidden among tall vegetation where they can safely raise a family. They are much more often found by hearing their distinctive rasping ‘crex-crex’ call, rather than actually being spotted – this is why they are counted in terms of ‘calling males’.

Corncrake calling male numbers from some key areas:

Location Number of calling males in 2016 Number of calling males in 2015 Number of calling males in 2014
Isle of Coll 89 78 91
Isle of Tiree 346 333 396
Isle of Mull 3 3 3
Islay 84 102 98
Orkney 12 16 36
Mainland – West Highlands 13 8 11
Isle of Skye 25 32 38
Lewis and Harris 109 106 150
Berneray, The Uists, Barra, Vatersay 268 296 345
Colonsay and Oronsay 52 55 86
Iona 28 32 28
Argyll mainland 0 1 0
Treshnish 2 1 2
Mingulay, Sandray, Berneray 6 6 4

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