Crex crex: the corncrake or landrail, the fast running rasper, the nutty noisemaker, the long legged bird of the cornfield, the rooster of the corn, is the strangest and most elusive of British birds. Once a common summer visitor throughout the British Isles, it has been in steep decline for the last hundred years  Now there are just about 500 breeding pairs, confined to the far western fringes of Ireland and the Scottish islands.  

It was 50 years ago when I last heard a Corncrake.  I was staying in the observatory on Cape Clear,  a magical island just 4 miles in length and less than a mile wide off the coast of County Cork in Southern Ireland.  During the day, I took part in sea watches, counted Puffins on their burrows on top of the cliffs and recorded the migrants that flopped down exhausted in the fields around the island overnight.  One memorable morning I awoke to the sound of about 20 Cuckoos.  Each was perched on a fence post and calling in vain for a mate.  It was like being in a cuckoo clock shop in Titisee.  But at night, Corncrakes called from the wildflower meadows – a strange regular mechanical sound, like scraping a credit card across the teeth of a comb.   One night, as it was getting dark, I persuaded my friend to come out and track down a Corncrake.  We borrowed a pair of cow rib bones from the observatory, one with a serrated edge and the other with a straight edge, which, when scraped against each other, mimicked the call of the Corncrake.  Arriving by a bank at the edge of a field, we scraped our bones together.  Almost immediately, we had a response that seemed to come from just beyond the corner at the end of the bank.  Cautiously we edged our way up the side of the bank, scraping our bones all the while and were thrilled to hear the responding call approaching us from around the corner.  Eventually, it was so close, it could only be a few feet away, so we tiptoed to the corner and peered round.  There, crouched by the bank were two other guys equipped with a second pair of bones; so we all collapsed laughing and retreated to O’Driscoll’s pub for a beer. 

But In the Coronation Meadow between Treshnish Farm and Huann Cottages on the Island of Mull, where Joan and I recently stayed, there were three separate males calling thought the day.  On Iona, they were more common; an estimated 20 to 30 pairs at several different sites throughout the island.  Although we tried to stalk them and got very close, we never saw one, though locals told us that they would occasionally see them rush across the road.  Not only can they move very quickly through the long grass, they also seem able to ‘throw their voice’ so it is difficult to pinpoint where they are.  So fast on the ground, they are vulnerable in the open and rarely take flight.  With short stubby wings and their long legs dangling down, they are poor flyers. How they manage to fly all the way back to Southern Africa in the winter is difficult to imagine.  

Corncrakes or Landrails are such rare birds.  About the size of a blackbird and related to the Moorhen but with striated brown plumage and ginger flanks, they live in the long grass and wildflowers of summer meadows.  Once widespread throughout the British Isles, but rarely seen, Gilbert White once heard them near Paradise Gardens in Oxford and even ate one. Naturalists of the time frequently shot less common birds, dissected them and ate them.  As White described   “The bird, which weighed seven-and-a-half ounces, was fat and tender and in flavour like the flesh of a woodcock. The liver was very large and delicate.”  Mrs Beeton recommended that four Landrails roasted on a skewer made a very satisfying meal.  In the late eighteenth century, the Northamptonshire peasant poet, John Clare, always heard then near his cottage in Helpston near Peterborough, but never saw one.   

’Tis like a fancy everywhere

A sort of living doubt

We know ’tis something but it ne’er

Will blab the secret out’

Their food is somewhat varied, consisting mainly of invertebrates and seeds though White recorded that ‘we once took a mouse from the stomach of a Landrail’. Although it is normally an extremely timid bird, which skulks in the long grass and is hardly ever seen in the open, a woman on Tiree once reported that a Corncrake living in her field would walk in through the front door and feed on kitchen scraps, while on Barra a bird that stayed over the winter would come and eat the chicken feed once the hens had finished.  

It is only the male that calls and may continue with scarcely a pause for as long as 6 hours .  Females lay two cliches of about 5 to 8 eggs in a shallow depression on the bare earth.  As soon as she has finished laying, the male will leave her and call for another female. After an incubation period of about 17 days, the eggs hatch and the chicks soon develop a black downy plumage.  The female then abandons her chicks after 12 days, hooks up with another male and lays another clutch of eggs.  At the end of August, Corncrakes migrate to Africa.  Birds from Scotland fly down the western route through France and Spain and the Congo to winter in South-east Africa, while birds that nest in the Ukraine migrate through Egypt and Sudan, but are often decimated by nets put out to catch Quail.  9000 Corncrakes were taken in Egypt in 1993 and 14,000 the following year.   Although Corncrakes are reputed to return to the same field, only about 30% of ringed birds make it back.  Some birds seem to get their navigation wrong and have been caught as far away as Vietnam and New Zealand. 

Corncrake numbers started to decline in in the late nineteenth century when farming became more mechanised and intensive.  More fields were grazed or, if left fallow, cut for silage much earlier in the season before the birds laid their second clutch of eggs.  Also the practice of mowing fields from the outside in ever decreasing rectangles concentrated the birds in the centre of the field where they were killed in the last swathe.  On the far flung islands of Scotland, the RSPB tries to persuade farmers to leave wildflower meadows uncut until the Corncrakes have left late in August and to alter the pattern of mowing to leave refuges and escape routes.  Traditional crofters used to cut hay by hand and used a crop rotation system, where fields were left fallow for two years, encouraging grasses and wildflowers. 

The maintenance of wildflower meadows does not just benefit the Corncrake, it promotes an abundance of inserts which attract a variety of birds and small mammals. Flocks of Twites, Goldfinches, Wheatears, Linnets and Meadow Pipits flew up whenever we passed by the meadows on our way from our cottage to the farm on Treshnish.  One morning we were awakened at 5.30am by a thump on the window and were eye to eye with a young cuckoo, perched on the window sill.  It was soon joined by its a foster mother, a Meadow Pipit, bearing a mouthful of insects; always good for a bird with a sore head!