CONSERVATION charity RSPB Scotland has called for a political commitment to continued support for High Nature Value farming in whatever system replaces the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy after Brexit.

Highlighting the start of this year’s annual corncrake survey, RSPB Scotland said that the future of the species was far from assured, particularly as the schemes that have supported the species' recovery in recent years are now in limbo.

"Although the birds remain one of our rarest species, thanks to cooperation between crofters, government, statutory agencies, conservation organisations and agriculture organisations, there has been a significant upturn in numbers from the low of fewer than 500 in the early 1990s," said the RSPB.

"Since the 1990s, crofters and farmers have received support through agri-environment schemes to create corncrake friendly conditions on their land. These include delaying their mowing dates, and creating corridors of vegetation for the birds and their chicks to move through and take cover in."

As a result, the population has been slowly increasing with the number of calling males recorded reaching a high of 1289 in 2014. However, since then numbers have fallen back, with last year’s survey revealing that they were at their lowest level since 2003.

Possible reasons for this decline may be found in their wintering grounds in the Southern Hemisphere, but closer to home, late springs could potentially have an effect, and there are concerns that a gap between successive management contracts between schemes has a detrimental impact on the area of land being managed to help the species.

Since last year’s survey, RSPB Scotland, the Scottish Government, Scottish Natural Heritage and agricultural consultants have been working to help as many crofters and farmers as possible apply for financial corncrake support during the latest application window, in the hope that the species will have increased numbers in the 2018 round.

Advisory Manager for Scotland, Chris Bailey, said: “We cannot let all the hard work that has been put in by all sides over the last 25 years be undone and go to waste.

“While RSPB Scotland recognises the funding challenges, we need Scottish Government to articulate a long-term vision for rural support, and commit to a clear plan for how species and habitats that are dependent on appropriate land management systems will be safeguarded. The continuation of agri-environment schemes is vital for the corncrake and the machair habitats they rely on, along with so much of our farmland wildlife," said Mr Bailey.

“This, as part of a comprehensive policy framework to support HNV farming, would deliver improvements for nature, agricultural communities and the public good. A wider HNV farming support system would also help species such as curlews and great yellow bumblebees, and be invaluable to farmers and crofters in the Highlands and Islands.”

If corncrakes are to have a long term viable future in Scotland, RSPB said that continued efforts will be required to maximise the habitat they need and minimise the risk of their nests being destroyed and chicks lost through mowing practices and lack of coverage.

Mr Bailey concluded: “Corncrakes are relying on us. The sharp declines in the last few years show just how vulnerable the population is and that there cannot be any let up in the drive to safeguard and save them as a breeding species in Scotland.”

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