THEY were once a familiar sound of the summer - with a distinctive crex crex song.

But the corncrake bird - now homed almost exclusively in Scotland - has been almost wiped out due to the intensification of farming.

The birds are now red-listed - the highest level of conservation concern - and are confined to a few Scottish islands and isolated areas on the north-west coast.

Now, a project to protect one of our rarest and most secretive birds is being launched.

Simple measures such as farmers cutting fields later in the summer could be crucial in reviving the fortunes of the corncrake. The birds, which return to the UK from Africa in May, live in tall vegetation and mowing of agricultural land can kill up to 60% of chicks, which are pre-fledged and cannot fly to escape.

RSPB Scotland's £738,000 Corncrake Calling project aims to work with farmers, crofters and local communities on land management in an effort to boost numbers.

Anne McCall, charity director, said: "Scotland plays host to almost the entire UK corncrake population, meaning we are uniquely placed to help this rare and protected species.

"The work done by communities to provide corncrakes with the habitat they need is a conservation success story.

"Research has shown that nature-friendly farming backed up by science has made a real difference."

Populations of the species fell dramatically during the 1900s due to mechanisation and earlier mowing of grass crops.

They bred only in the Hebrides, north-west Highlands and Orkney by the 1990s.

Action by the RSPB, other conservation charities and the government resulted in a significant increase in corncrakes between 1993 and 2007. Agri-environmental schemes helped to an extent. The schemes, in which farmers and crofters are paid to maintain corncrake habitat and adapt their mowing practices by delaying mowing and mowing from the inside of the field outwards, led to an increase in numbers.

However, a survey last year revealed that the corncrake population dropped by over 30% in the last five years.

The UK population fluctuated at just over 1,000 calling males until 2017 when only 866 were recorded, a drop of 33% since 2014 and the lowest number since 2003.

Numbers recovered slightly in 2018 with 899 males recorded but decreased again in 2019 to 870.

RSPB Scotland's project - backed by National Lottery Heritage funding - will aim to provide corncrake-friendly habitats.

The long-term aim of the project is to build on successful co-operation with the crofting and farming communities to protect and improve on the advances made across the key breeding areas in Argyll and Bute, the Hebrides, north Highlands and Orkney.

The RSPB said educational activities for children will inspire a wildlife friendly ethos among the crofters of the future.

There will also be local community engagement events to connect communities and visitors to the wildlife in the areas.

New web pages, films, social media and a touring exhibition will take the corncrake story across Scotland to teach people how crofting and nature friendly farming is crucial for corncrakes and can benefit many other species.

Chris Bailey, of RSPB Scotland, said “The Scottish islands are the stronghold for this species and the support they receive must continue over the long-term if we’re to have a real chance at ensuring corncrakes continue to breed in Scotland every summer.”

Caroline Clark, Director Scotland of The National Lottery Heritage Fund, added: “This special bird and its habitat is under constant threat which is why we are investing National Lottery funding in opportunities for people to take action to save them.

"Not only will this initiative encourage sympathetic land management to give the fragile corncrake population what it needs to thrive, crucially, it will equip a new generation of helpers with the skills and expertise to make a real difference to the future of our natural world.”