The distinctive 'crex crex' call of the Corncrake has been heard once again last week in the Western Isles, marking the return of this endangered species for another breeding season in Scotland.  

These elusive birds, once widespread across the UK, have seen a decline in numbers in recent decades due to changes in agricultural practices, but conservationists are hopeful that their efforts, alongside volunteers, farmers and landowners, are making a difference for the species.    

Corncrakes are incredibly secretive small brown birds, and are close relatives to Moorhens and Coots, though they spend the winter months in Congo in Central Africa, migrating back to a few places across Scotland and Northern Ireland to breed.

Previously found across the UK, the mechanisation of farming meant most of their breeding habitats were lost, except for the few remaining areas in Scotland and Northern Ireland.    

READ MORE: Number of corncrakes in Scotland increases for first time in five years

The return of this endangered species to Scotland for another year to breed is a testament to the dedication and passion of the community, farmers, volunteers and the RSPB in their collective efforts to secure a future for the Corncrake.

This week also saw the return of the first Corncrakes to Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland, where RSPB NI is working in a similar way to ‘Corncrake Calling’. The associated Corncrake projects, alongside these communities and farmers, continue to play a crucial role in saving the red-listed species.   

Tara Proud, Project Manager for Corncrake Calling, said: “The return of Corncrakes to Scotland is not only a hugely exciting event, with their signature “crex crex” call undeniably marking the start of spring, but also an encouraging sign that the conservation efforts in the area are helping. Corncrakes are an iconic part of the landscape here, they mean a lot to local communities.

"The farmers and crofters we work with are creating space for these small but mighty birds, and we’re already seeing the results. Corncrakes need cover to nest in, such as nettles, so by leaving tall patches of vegetation the Corncrakes have somewhere to hide. We also encourage mowing in a Corncrake-friendly way in summer, harvesting from the middle of the field out, so the young chicks, which can’t fly, are able to get out of the way.” 

The return of Corncrakes this week follows the news that numbers of the bird found in Scotland rose for the first time in 5 years in 2023. The welcome Scottish survey findings marked an important result in efforts to save these birds, which have been declining largely due to habitat loss. But last year, 870 calling males of these shy, rare birds were recorded, up from 828 the previous year.   

As a red listed species, this takes Scotland’s Corncrake population back to levels not seen since 2019. Whilst still significantly lower than the 2014 high of 1282 calling males, the number marks an important result in efforts to save these birds in what is hoped could be a turning point in their recovery.   

Partnership working to reverse the decline of the Corncrake has included increasing the quality and the quantity of suitable Corncrake habitat and Corncrake friendly land management practices in key places for these birds, while crucially delivering benefits for farmers, crofters and landowners too.    

As Katie-jo Luxton, the RSPB’s director of conservation, said: “Hearing the wonderful crex crex call of the Corncrake echoing amongst the undergrowth once more is cause for hope, not least amongst the communities of passionate volunteers, farmers and landowners that have helped to protect and restore their habitat.

"The delivery of targeted Corncrake-friendly habitat and land management really does yield results, and now, more than ever, our farmers need the guarantee of support from the Governments of the UK to continue to deliver for wildlife, climate and long-term food security so that species like Corncrake can thrive once more.”