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Doing his all for the corncrake’s call

Outdoor Living

DWINDLING Corncrake numbers on the Mullet Peninsula – one of the bird’s few remaining strongholds – appear to be declining. 

Ger Flanagan

Anyone lucky enough to have heard the distinctive call of the elusive corncrake in their lifetime will not forget it. Indeed, a few weeks ago The Mayo News reported on the 70th wedding anniversary of Westport couple Michael and Eileen Walsh – and how Eileen, now 94, can still remember the bird singing as she made her way to church on her wedding day, back in the summer of 1946.
While the corncrake’s ‘krek-krek’ call was once often heard on the Mullet Peninsula too, it is becoming rarer and rarer there. Indeed, early indications this season might suggest the birds might be disappearing from the once-popular nesting spot.
In 2011, Feargal Ó Cuinneagáin, a vet from County Wicklow, purchased a 25-acre farm just outside Belmullet with the aim of helping the corncrake population survive. However, he has noticed the number of these rare bird decreasing every year.
“There were 37 there (on the peninsula) last year and there has only been eight so far this year,” he told The Mayo News last week. “It’s still early in the season, but the corncrake’s all come back at the same time … The Connemara ones are back in good numbers, but the Belmullet ones are not.”
Feargal is part of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) Corncrake Farm Plan, a scheme set up to help farmers create an ideal habitat for corncrake. Unfortunately, due cuts to farm schemes in successive budgets, entry into this scheme is limited.
“In my area of Belmullet, plenty of tourists come to see and hear the corncrake, contributing money to the local economy, so if the scheme was extended it would benefit the corncrake greatly as good numbers of the bird inhabit NPWS Farm Plan lands,” Feargal said.
There is another scheme available, the Corncrake Grant Scheme, which rewards farmers who volunteer to delay the mowing of their meadows in order to allow the corncrake breed.
“They need vegetation of at least 20cm in height to nest,” Feargal explained. “[The female] also has two broods, one in June and one in July, so if you’re cutting silage at those times the corncrake will just get chopped up, meaning with one season’s mowing your population could be gone.”
The Wicklow man feels the grant does not offer enough enticement for farmers, a fact that is contributing to the demise of the bird.
“The problem is the [Corncrake Grant Scheme] is capped at €1,500, whereas five or six years ago it was double that. It wouldn’t be worth it to the farmers, as you could get two cuts of silage instead of it,” he added.
“Farmers in the west are under serious pressure. If he is not going to get a grant to cover his cost, then he is not going to do it,” he said. Quipping that ‘99 percent of people’ don’t avail of the grant, he acknowledges that he is the exception – a situation he finds hugely frustrating. “I spent a small fortune buying that farm, and it’s really disheartening when you put in all the work and get nothing back.”
Anyone who hears the corncrake’s call on or near their land is encouraged to call the Corncrake Hotline on 076 1002517, as early indication of the breeding sites is vitally important. In doing so, you can also volunteer for the Corncrake Grant Scheme.