The corncrake - one of Britain's rarest and most secretive birds - is about to begin nesting in England again after an absence of more than 40 years.
The small but brightly coloured ground-nesting bird is to be reintroduced on a wildlife reserve in eastern England next month as part of a £90,000 programme funded by English Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Zoological Society.
The corncrake has been restricted to the Western Isles of Scotland, the Isle of Man and parts of Ireland, where the harvest is late enough for the bird to breed and farming is less industrialised than elsewhere in the British Isles. It is one of 30 birds on the "red list" of rare and endangered British species, and is the only globally threatened nesting bird in Britain. There are now thought to be about 700 males left in the UK.
Known for its rasping "crek crek" call, the corncrake was once one of Britain's best known farmland birds. In the late 1800s, it was a regular part of rural life across the country, but the introduction of mechanisation between the wars led to a catastrophic collapse in the bird's population.
The bird nests in corn and wheat fields. When crops were harvested by hand, its young were able to escape from the scythe but were too slow to outrun mechanical harvesters.
Under the reintroduction programme, about 50 chicks a year will be set free on the reserve. They have been bred using birds imported from Leipzig, Germany, at the Zoological Society's wildlife park at Whipsnade.
Peter Newbery, the RSPB's bird reintroduction expert, said the corncrake would never be a common bird in Britain again, unless farming practices radically changed. "But at least we know that there's a nucleus of grassland sites which are being managed for conservation," he said. Eventually, the bird will be settled on reserves across the country.
Ornithologists argue that reintroduction programmes for birds such as the corncrake could prove vital. The species is still common in eastern Europe, but these countries are soon to join the European Union and are expected to introduce the intensive farming practices that wiped the bird out in mainland Britain.
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