Big thank you from

The dramatic decrease in farmland birds

by Paul Cormacain

THOSE people at Cairde Eanlaith Eireann and the RSPB are complaining again. Are they not great ones for complaining? One of the bird problems at the moment concerns farmland birds, and due to changing farm practices it is found that there has been a dramatic decrease in the numbers of lapwings and yellow hammers.

You may well have noticed it yourself. Certainly, in the old days, yellow hammers could be seen in every hedgerow, and I frequently came across their nests. This year I have not seen a single bird.

Is it not great that we have two excellent organisations on this island who will bring this to our attention, and to the attention of the authorities? Long may they keep complaining.

Changing agricultural practices are one thing. But now we are experiencing a new threat, a threat that has been around for some time.

Some folk take it seriously others ignore it. Some governments are keen to help other governments act as though there is no problem. So what does the RSPB say about this?

Well, wildlife is good for telling us the state of the environment, and bird changes tell us that there must be reasons for the changes. They say that bird changes could be seen as the canary in the coal mine analogy'. If birds are in danger, it could very well mean that we are in danger too.

The story about seabirds is a deteriorating one, and the 2004 breeding season was the worst on record. On Rathlin, for example, kittiwakes were not spared and there were very few chicks. The staple diet of the kittiwakes is sand eels, and there are greatly reduced numbers of this fish around. So a lack of food means a lack of young birds. The thinking is that smaller numbers of fish are caused by environmental factors, such as climate change. Furthermore, environmental factors are a greater threat to sand eels than industrial fishing.

Wintering migrants have also been affected. Numbers have been falling, and this affects ducks, geese, swans, and waders. Birds like Bewick swan used to be common here in the winter. They are now quite rare. They breed in Siberia, and when the weather becomes too much for them they tend to move south to our milder climate. Well, the climate is now too mild, so the birds go for a place which is warmer than Siberia, but not as warm as here.

They breed in Siberia, and when the weather becomes too much for them they tend to move south to our milder climate. Well, the climate is now too mild, so the birds go for a place which is warmer than Siberia, but not as warm as here.

Farming practice, and indeed business practice, is thought to be responsible for the drop in numbers of the corncrake over the years. Why I mention business is because as a youngster there used to be many corn-crakes where now is the Boucher Road area in Belfast. Now it is all business.

Cairde Eanlaith Eireann has a more positive report this year on corncrakes. We are still waiting breeding birds in Fermanagh, and are optimistic about the bird re-establishing on Rathlin.

Much work has been done there to make the island more attractive to corncrakes, and the work should pay off in the near future. I myself heard my first corn-crake for years, and Cairde are optimistic because there has been an overall increase in Ireland.

Folk are out every year counting the number of corncrakes in Donegal, and they have recorded the best year for a decade.

It is one of the more important Irish counties for corncrake. Yet Toraigh, off the northwest coast, has a strange history. From 32 birds last year the numbers plunged to 20. And this on perhaps one of the more famous spots for corncrakes in north-west Europe.

Nearby, on Inis Bo Finne, numbers also plunged from fourteen to ten. But in other parts of the county the bird has fared well, and just over a hundred corn-crakes were recorded in total, the best figure for a decade.

What about some more good news? Against the trend, gannets are doing well in Ireland and Britain. Since the last gannet census a decade ago, three new colonies established themselves.

This bird is our largest seabird. Because of its spectacular lifestyle, especially its dives, it is probably the most known, loved, watched, sea bird in the north Atlantic. Its breeding range extends from Brittany, north to Iceland, and east to Murmansk in Russia, and from the Gulf of St Lawrence to Labrador.

Cormorants declined in the 19th century, because the eggs and chicks were cropped excessively for human consumption. Governments stepped in, and protection was introduced, and this quite likely saved the bird. Perhaps it is time for another 'step in', and then something could be done about climate changes.

Coming Events

Friday 1st July to Wednesday 31st August - Castle Espie is hosting a Feathertastic Trail, a self guided trail for all the family, sounds fantastic. Contact Espie on 028 9187 4146 for details.

Sunday 28th August - The National Trust invite you to view the fallow deer at Crom.

Monday 29th August - Guided Walk in Turmennan Fen, an ASSI, details from 028 4461 5520. The National Trust invites you to a guided walk at Murlough.

Saturday 3rd September - Canoe to Moneypenny's Lockhouse, at 1100, more from Oxford Island on 028 3832 2205.

Saturday 10th September - Woodcraft Day in Colin Glen Forest Park, at 1100, phone 028 9061 4115. Come and visit the hedgehogs at Castle Espie, at 1 pm, contact 028 9187 4146.

Sunday 11th September - Newry Canal Cycle Ride, at 10am, more information from Oxford Island, 028 3832 2205.

Ulster Star