Big thank you from

If Spring is on the way, can corncrakes be far behind?

by Paul Cormacain

HAD a recent communication from Stan Bell, and it started off a line of thought about, of all things, corncrakes.

Now I know that we had snow on Christmas Day, and some half hearted snow since then, but I have watched my third pair of magpies building a nest so there must be some signals of spring there somewhere. And if spring comes, can corncrakes be far behind?

When I was younger, it seemed that the air was full of corncrake noises. Stan seems to have had
the same experience. In school days, the birds were very common, and we used to see the birds as well as hear them.

So they can fly, they fly to and from winter quarters each year, a substantial flight, but when they are here they tend to mostly keep to the ground.

A very good friend of mine, Joe McNeice, used to walk to school, as indeed we all had to do. When the weather was good he used to walk through the fields of a few farms instead of along tracks and roads.

Can you imagine folk walking to school through fields nowadays?

Anyway, Joe and I were both interested in wildlife. I used to go out and catch trout with my hands, Joe went one better, damned a stream that went through his garden, and encouraged the trout to live there, and thrive and grow big and fat. Then he had them from the pond to the cooker without wasting too much time.

One day Joe was going through the fields and rescued a corncrake. Some young folk who lived in downtown Belfast had come across the bird and captured it. Because we lived away from downtown, we thought we knew more about coururv life than the downtown brigade. So Joe just took the corncrake away from them, and to and behold, a strange occurrence happened.

We used to look for birds' nests every spring, and found samples of nearly every type of local bird, but we never found a corncrake nest. Joe's corncrake laid an egg in his hand.

He brought it to show me, and we wondered at this apparent miracle. Here we were handling a corncrake egg, and we had neither of us ever seen the egg before. Adults in flight, yes, adults running along the ground, yes, young running along the ground, yes, all of these, but never a nest nor an egg. We were thrilled and delighted, and after we showed it triumphantly around the neighbourhood Joe gave the egg to me. Proud me.

What helped to bring all this back to me was that at a recent gathering I met the brother and sister of Joe. They told me that Joe had died recently, and I was completely unaware of his passing.

Is it not amazing that you can be very friendly with a body, then you go and live your separate lives and never see that body again? Goodbye Joe.

Stan had a similar line of thought about corncrakes in the winter. He used to live on a farm in Carnreagh, and he tells me of seeing many of the birds perish. The practice used to be for the farmer to go around the perimeter of a grain field with a scythe, this way it opened up a path for the heavy equipment to come and finish the cutting. All the grain would be saved.

The common practice was then for the binder, or sometimes the reaper, would then move around the perimeter, cutting gradually inwards towards the centre.

Stan used to be aware of the corncrakes then moving from the cut crop in towards the centre, where they thought they would not be seen, therefore they felt safer.

The area of safety became smaller and smaller as the cutting progressed, then a few birds might have deemed it desirable to leave, but other remained. Stan remembers seeing many birds with severed legs

This method of mechanised farming was a death trap for farming, and Stan experienced the diminishing numbers of corncrakes. Happily we have moved beyond that, and the farming community has changed its system, for which we are all grateful.

The corncrakes never recovered. Occasional sightings in Fermanagh and on Rathlin have not yet led to greater things. The birds in Donegal and along the Shannon are still coming back, but for all our efforts the bird is still very rare, comes infrequently, but is always very welcome.

Stan Bell has brought the plight of corncrakes again to our attention. Perhaps Joe McNeice can exercise some influence on the future of corncrakes, for he might now have more power than when he was living.

Coming Events

Saturday 22nd January - Winter Survival Training at Greenmount, 2pm, sounds like great craic, call 4483 0282.

Sunday 23rd January - Go to Colin Glen, at loam, and see and hear the Birds of Colin Glen, phone 9061 4115

Wednesday 26th January - The Irish Garden Plant Society, jointly with RHS and Museum, hosting New Year Lecture, details, talk to Catherine on 9038 3152

Thursday 27th January - Oxford Island is organising a talk, photographic exhibition and display on traditional boat building and fishing in the Lough Neagh area, more on 3832 2205.

Ulster Star