Even Offalians who seemed not to have a romantic bone in their body were moved by stories last year of the single male corncrake left on the Shannon Callows, calling out in vain for a partner.
While the picture remains bleak for corncrakes in the wild, a new captive breeding programme in Boora has led to the successful birth of two corncrake chicks just over two weeks ago.
Divisional manager with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) Padraig Comerford last Saturday uploaded a clip of those chicks being fed by captive breeding manager Paddy Kelly to YouTube, and it’s hoped the new programme will help put a safety net in place to ensure the iconic corncrake species does not become extinct.
Ireland is at the western limit of the corncrake’s breeding range, which extends through central Europe to Asiatic Russia. In winter the birds migrate through the Middle East and North Africa to the grasslands and savannahs of central and southern Africa.
In the past the birds have arrived to Ireland in spring to breed, but in recent years numbers have been declining - sometimes dramatically.
Back in 1998 calling male corncrakes recorded along the Shannon Callows numbered 69. Last year that had dipped to just one, and he was flooded out.
This year two calling corncrakes were recorded along the Shannon Callows however, and a new captive breeding programme in Boora is another reason to hope corncrakes will not become a bird of memory rather than reality.
According to Padraig Comerford the Boora programme is being run at the NPWS Grey Partridge Project in Boora, where captive breeding manager Paddy Kelly has developed huge experience in rearing captive bred native patridge and releasing them to the wild.
This year a trial research experiment on the feasibility of breeding corncrakes in captivity in Ireland was set up in Boora with co-operation from Fota Wildlife Park and its director Sean McKeown who sourced some corncrakes for the project in Germany.
Specially built facilities were erected at Fota in Cork and Boora in Offaly, and this year through expert husbandry and much care corncrake chicks were successfully produced at both sites.
Boora’s captive breeding programme began this year with two females and two males. One pair produced no eggs at all, though Padraig says this isn’t unusual as often corncrakes won’t take a shine to their designated opposite number.
The second pairing at Boora produced eight eggs however, and while unfortunately six of those were infertile, two were hatched under incubator just over two weeks ago.
Facilities at Boora as part of the programme mirror those at Whitsnade Zoo in London, which has pioneered captive breeding. Corncrakes as part of the project laid eggs themselves naturally, before these were taken from them for hatching perchance the natural process didn’t work.
Chicks featured in the YouTube clip are seven days old according to Padraig. They’re fed every hour from about 6am every morning until 10pm at night, with feeders careful to wear masks and socks so chicks don’t come to see them as mothers.
Chicks and older corncrakes that are part of the Boora project will be wintered at the same facility in Offaly, in order for those behind the programme to develop an expertise. It will mean the winter of 2013/14 will be Offaly’s first playing host to corncrakes, albeit in captivity.
The birds that form the project will not be released into the wild either. Rather they will be used to help build expertise and develop a strategy to halt the decline of corncrakes.
Other plans in place to halt the decline of corncrake numbers include a pilot farm plan scheme in Donegal and Mayo to help farmers maintain early and late vegetation cover on their lands for the birds.
All efforts seem to be helping, as in the wake of corncrake numbers in Ireland declining from 795 calling males in 1988 to 155 in 1998, preliminary figures for this year show 184 calling males.
Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan is happy with the rising trend. “While these are only preliminary figures, they are very encouraging,” he said, thanking in particular the farmers and landowners who are working with his department to save the corncrake of the Irish countryside.
You can see the corncrake chicks at Boora being fed here: