The corncrake grant scheme, operated by the Irish Wildbird Conservancy is jointly funded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, RSPB, and my Department through Dúchas – the Heritage Service. Since 1992, this scheme has received State funding through Dúchas amounting to approximately £466,000 including a grant of £49,000 in the current year, 2001.
The grant scheme for the conservation of corncrakes was introduced for farmers who managed their land in a corncrake friendly manner in Donegal, the Shannon Callows and north west Mayo, the core areas where corncrakes are found in Ireland. The scheme has been reasonably successful in sharply slowing the decline in the corncrake population following a period of steep decline. In the period between 1988 and 1993 the population declined dramatically from 903 to 173 calling males. Since the introduction of this scheme numbers have fallen further, but have remained relatively stable since 1997. The figure for this year is 154 calling males. These figures are disappointing and do not adequately reflect the resources and commitment to the scheme of the project partners, Dúchas, RSPB and Birdwatch Ireland but I am satisfied that the scheme is worthwhile and should be continued.
While the corncrake grant scheme has proved to be a valuable interim conservation scheme for the corncrake, the long-term strategy for corncrake conservation will be based largely on EU funded agri-environmental measures through the rural environmental protection scheme operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. Under this scheme, participating landowners can attract significant grants for farming in an environmentally friendly way. As more landowners join REPs, they no longer become eligible for payments under the corncrake grant scheme. Discussions are ongoing with conservationists, farmers representatives, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and farm planners under the REPs to agree an appropriate prescription for corncrake friendly farming. The measures principally relate to dates of closing of meadows, dates of cutting hay and silage and mowing from the centre out.
Dúchas is also funding – £25,000 in 2001 – a three year Ph.D. studentship based in University College Cork working on habitat management research for corncrakes in the Shannon Callows as well as a research grant of £15,000 to fund additional pilot habitat management measures in the Shannon Callows. It is hoped that this research will better inform and improve the farming prescription and allow numbers to increase.