Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Ireland's corncrakes - no longer in every acre

 

A A A

Are we divided by the same language? There is no doubt that the British Isles – that is, Britain and Ireland combined – constitute a geographical entity. We have the same climate (temperate, moist, and 10 degrees Celsius warmer than it should be, because of the Gulf Stream), the same topography of low mountains, small lakes and relatively short rivers, and the same wildlife. But so ingrained are the social and political differences between the two countries that they are rarely considered together (the Lions rugby team being a rare exception).

One way that the whole archipelago is seen in the round, however, is in the production of bird atlases. There have been two editions of the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, one in the early 1970s and another in the early 1990s; now a third will be published next year.

Four years of fieldwork for the new atlas have been completed and the preliminary results paint a fascinating picture of bird gains and losses: during the past two decades, for example, over much of Britain the raven has returned, while the wood warbler and the whinchat have vanished.

These changes we already knew something about, because British breeding bird populations have been annually surveyed, in detail, for nearly half a century. But Ireland's breeding birds have been subject to detailed annual surveys only since 1998, and not all species are covered, so the new atlas will be very important for the Republic: the clearest indication yet of how its avifauna has fared over the past 40 years. And the preliminary results do not all make happy reading.

They show in particular that the birds which might be thought archetypal inhabitants of Ireland's wild west – the waders of the lowland bogs and upland moors such as snipe, lapwing, redshank and curlew – are in serious trouble. Since the last atlas, they have declined, respectively, by 11, 32, 40 and 65 per cent. These figures refer to distribution: the percentage of 10km grid squares on the map where the birds are found. The percentage loss of abundance, of the actual numbers of birds, will be very much greater. Indeed, the curlew in Ireland is in such headlong decline that it may soon go extinct.

The greatest loss of all in the past 20 years, however, is that of the bird which once symbolised agricultural Ireland more than any other: the corncrake. There used to be "a corncrake in every acre", with its rasping call on summer evenings; the new atlas will show that Crex crex has disappeared from 78 per cent of grid squares since 1991, and from 93 per cent since 1972. Modernised farming methods are largely to blame, and the bird is now confined to the coastal strip and offshore islands of the far west, such as Tory Island and the two Inishbofins (one each off Donegal and Galway), with the population reduced to fewer than 150 calling males.

It's not all bad news, though: for instance, two birds which have vastly extended their range in Britain over the past two decades, the buzzard and the little egret, have done the same in Ireland. But the development giving Irish bird-lovers most satisfaction is one which may seem mundane to British birders: the arrival of the woodpeckers.

We all know Ireland has no snakes, thanks to St Patrick; few realised that until recently the country was woodpeckerless, too. That changed when great spotted woodpeckers began breeding in County Wicklow in about 2006; now they're rapidly spreading. "It's a fascinating development," said Brian Caffrey, the Irish Atlas Coordinator. "People are delighted." And having that magnificent flash of black, white and scarlet on their bird feeders, why wouldn't they be?

From an abundance of apple varieties, a rare new winner

Just to wander outside Britain once again: last week in France, I discovered an apple variety that was new to me. I'm not sure if apple anecdotes fit the description of Nature Studies, but I shall mention it because I do feel that orchards, especially old orchards, are a definite part of the natural world.

The apple was called chanteclerc (sometimes spelt without the final c) and it was a dull mustardy yellow, with small brown spots; largish, and flattened at the top and the bottom.

It turns out to be a cross between a famous old French apple, the reinette clochard, and the golden delicious, that monument to insipidity. Nothing insipid about the chanteclerc, though: soon as it touches your tongue, the flesh has an acid bite, which is also perfumed. Fantastic.

I haven't seen it in Britain, so if a supermarket apple buyer is reading this, now's your chance, sunbeam.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/@mjpmccarthy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'