Thursday 5 December 2019

Zoo offers a chance for legs danglers

Killed off: The Corncrake
Killed off: The Corncrake

Joe Kennedy

Through the soft sift of snow, the snowdrops peep from beneath the shelter of a silver birch. Each year they venture out to welcome a new season.

A barn owl silently wings by the road near Dunmanway on a moonlit night. And corncrake numbers are down still further, says a BirdWatch Ireland report. I did not think there were any crakes left! BirdWatch no doubt knows of the RSPB's recovery programme with Whipsnade Zoo - we'll return to this.

The poor crake, an awkward bird with dangling legs, makes a miracle journey of thousands of miles to central Africa and back each year. It is the butt of folkloric jeering. Seumas MacManus, Donegal poet, wrote of the 'craik' calling the 'treun' to signify strength: "He lies on his back in the long grass and, in awe-stricken admiration contemplating his raised feet, cries 'A treun, le treun, what wonderful strength for the two little feet of one poor bird to hold up all the skies'."

A contemporary English writer and farmer, John Lewis-Stempel, writes of the 'crex, crex' call, "a sound like no other, something like a fingernail on a comb… loops of past, present and future pinched together between finger and thumb".

The Cambridgeshire reserve at Nene Washes is a six-mile oblong of flat marshy grassland where a corncrake re-introduction scheme was begun in the early 2000s. Hand-reared birds bred at Whipsnade are released and in autumn migrate, every beat of their wings an effort.

"It's a miracle that any corncrake can fly to and from Africa, particularly birds raised in zoological gardens. But they do," says Lewis-Stempel, who has written a history of landscape and the animals that live thereon.

I last heard a crake on Inishbofin a couple of years back but have a vivid memory of a calling bird in West Waterford, from a meadow fronting an imposing modern 'eco-house'.

The owner had planted hundreds of broadleaf trees in his surrounding parkland and was sensitive as to how his meadow should be 'knocked' - the mowing cut went straight to the centre and then worked in an outwards curve pushing bird and animal before it towards fringe cover. His hay was valued. It was reminiscent of an older Ireland, of turning, drying and cocking. I remember that crake calling for hours on that particular evening.

John Clare, poet of the English countryside, mused on the sounds of the 'landrail' in 'undiscovered song making a pleasant wonder tale' as rambling boys 'peep in every bush they pass and none the wiser get. And still they hear the craiking sound/It surely can't be underground'.

Modern fodder saving, especially silage cutting, has killed off the corncrake except in small pockets by the Shannon, in Donegal, and north Mayo. The bird's instinct of nesting in meadows meant that, when mechanised mowing began, chicks were trapped. Cutting of silage was a final sword swipe, mortality being reckoned at 95pc.

And the Cork reader who saw the barn owl was fortunate. These birds are victims of farm pest control. They once kept down rat numbers, but now poisons are almost universally used. The owl of the sad features is also an unwitting victim.

Sunday Independent

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