Tag Archives: Trent Valley

The Corncrake: the sound of Victorian England

Nowadays the Corncrake is limited to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland although there is also what seems to be a highly successful  reintroduction scheme being carried out in the RSPB Nene Washes Reserve in Cambridgeshire, England:

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In the first half of the nineteenth century, Corncrakes were present throughout the length and breadth of England and their distinctive call was heard in every sunlit field. Even their Latin name, crex crex, is onomatopoeic. The birds were described as producing the most distinctive summer sound to be heard on a country walk anywhere in England. This is the song of the corncrake, beautifully recorded by “therhys927”

Corncrakes will often sing all through the night, and they can in fact be pretty aggravating little so-and-so’s once the initial novelty has worn off:

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John Clare, England’s greatest poet, wrote a poem about the bird which he knew as the “Landrail”:

“How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain”

Nowadays, the Corncrakes are all gone, gradually killed off by decade after decade of desire for profit, intensive farming practices and in particular the mechanised mowing techniques used by the nation’s farmers in place of the trusty scythe.  This sad decline is chronicled in Nottinghamshire by the county’s Victorian birdwatchers:

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In 1866, in his “Ornithology of Nottinghamshire”,  William Felkin wrote that “the corncrake is very common”. Three years later, in 1869, William Sterland provided a charming account of this delightful bird in “The Birds of Sherwood Forest”:

“That bird of singular habits and note, the corncrake, visits us in abundance every year, sometimes arriving as early as the first of May, while in 1853 I did not hear its note until the 18th. This was unusually late; the season being a remarkably cold and backward one, a fact of which our other migratory birds also seemed, in some mysterious way, to be fully cognisant. Nothing, indeed, relating to the feathered tribes is more wonderful or more deserving of our admiration than that knowledge, call it instinct or what you will, which, implanted in them by their Creator, enables them to hasten or delay their departure for their distant but temporary places of abode, according as the seasons there are suitable to their necessities or otherwise. How strikingly is this wisdom brought forward in Holy Scripture: “Yes, the Stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed time and the turtle, and the crane, and the swallow observe the time of their coming.”

William Sterland seems well aware of the piece of Corncrake behaviour which was to prove its downfall, as the mechanized mower made its inexorable way forward:

“I have never succeeded in causing the Corncrake to take wing except with a dog, and even then its flight is always brief, as it takes an early opportunity of dropping to the ground and regaining its cover. It flies rather slowly with its legs hanging down, and there is such an air of effort about his movements on the wing, that I have often wondered how its migrations are performed.
Its ventriloquial powers are well known to every observer. Now it’s harsh “Crake, crake” seems within a few yards, and the next moment it sounds as if it were halfway across the field, and this apparent variation in distance is so well simulated that in a consecutive repetition of its call for ten or twelve times, a few notes will sound as if uttered almost at your feet, and the next two or three from afar, and yet the bird is standing motionless all the time, as I have several times tested. Its singular call I have often imitated by drawing my nail across the teeth of a pocket comb, and thus inducing its near approach.”

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Again Sterland reveals how fully conscious he is of the problems the Corncrake will face throughout the rest of the nineteenth century:

“The female sits very closely on eggs, so closely indeed, as not infrequently to lose her life by the mower’s scythe. I have known two instances of this, in one of which the poor bird was almost cut in two.”

Ten years later, in 1879, William Sterland provided additional details about the Corncrake:

“An abundant summer visitor. It is also been found in winter, and on this account has been thought by some to hibernate; but apart from the fact that no bird is known to hibernate, why should a corncrake which remains during the winter not be able to fare as well as a water rail or a common snipe. Cold does not affect them.”

In his “Scribblings of a Hedgerow Naturalist”(1904), Joseph Whitaker wrote:

“The other evening when talking to Rose the Nottingham taxidermist (who has set up a great many specimens in this collection) I remarked how very few Corncrake there were about, he said he well remembered about 35 years ago, a man bringing a large basket to his father, of these birds, which he had shot in two days, and they numbered over fifty; at that time he said the meadows round Nottingham were full of them, and their call could be heard on all sides. This year I have heard one, although I have been about a great deal.”

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No Corncrakes in 1904, no meadows in 2014! Elsewhere Joseph Whitaker wrote about his country house at Rainworth, between Nottingham, and Mansfield:

“I am sorry to say the Corn Crake is getting scarcer. I have not heard one near the house was several years, although twenty years ago they were in every mowing field. No doubt the result of mowing machines which cuts the young up often I fear.”

Three years later in 1907, Joseph Whitaker provided in “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”  the following information :

“I sorrow to say that this interesting bird is a rapidly vanishing species, not only as far as Notts is concerned, but in many other counties. Twenty years back it was the exception in the spring not to hear a corncrake in nearly every mowing field in the Trent Valley, and almost every seed and grass field left for hay in other parts. In this very high and dry parish of Blidworth, we had between ten and fifteen pairs, now for the last three years not a bird has been heard.”

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Like his fellow nature writers, Joseph Whitaker chronicles the decline:

“At Southwell, on a June night, their curious call resounded on all sides; now this year there may be two pairs. Mr Henry Smith Junior of Cropwell Butler informs me that this scarcity is very noticeable in that part, and in fact all over the south of the county.”

Alas, Whitaker was to be proved wrong when he wrote:

“Let us hope that it will be many years before they are quite a bird of the past, but if they decrease during the next twenty years as fast as their decrease during the last two decades, it pains me to think that it may be so.
I once heard a corncrake calling inside the kitchen garden at Welbeck Abbey.”

And finally, in “Jottings of a Naturalist” in 1912, Whitaker wrote:

“Twenty years ago there were Corncrakes all over the parish, in fact it was the exception not to hear them in every mowing field, but I know that there is been none for the last ten years, not a single bird heard, and the parish is six thousand acres; and it is not only so in these parts, it is the same everywhere.”

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And really, that was that. The end of the Corncrake.

As the Great War loomed, the Victorian age drew to a close. No more mowing fields, no more meadows full of flowers, no more clouds of brightly coloured butterflies. And no more Corncrakes. Just mud, blood, war and death.

To film a Corncrake nowadays, you are more or less wasting your time in England. This beautiful, atmospheric video comes from “mikhailrodionov” in faraway Russia:




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Two local twitches

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Monday, September 5, 1988

Another walk around my local patch, Netherfield  Sludge Pits, the Cape May of the Nottinghamshire gravel pits complex. (see the orange arrow)


Once again, it turns up the big one, with immediate and excellent views of Sedge Warbler, and a male Reed Bunting in the same fifteen yards of hedge.

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At the side of the path, there is a little flock of fifteen or twenty Yellow Wagtails and over the main lake, a Common Tern.

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They used to nest on the little island, until it was submerged by the rising tide of slurry from the local coalmine. Knocking around the fields are a Kestrel, some Jackdaws and a few Stock Doves.

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On one of the smaller pools, Mute Swans have bred.


They have produced several cygnets, but don’t worry, the anglers lead shot will soon put a stop to that. It’s amazing to think that Curlew used to breed here fifty years ago, and that, at this very site, Black-winged Stilts nested just after the Second World War.

A flock of finches here once contained an Ortolan Bunting and Little Bunting travelling together, and just after the Second World War, there was an apparent family  group of Gull-billed Terns come through, .

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Today, there are three Great Black-backed Gulls, and a Herring Gull.

That’s what the destruction of habitat is all about.

Wednesday, September 7, 1988

An evening trip this time. A local birdwatcher has told me about a superb new place that attracts wonderful birds by Nottinghamshire’s normal standards. It’s a couple of flooded meadows down by the River Trent at Stoke Bardolph (now, alas, with houses built on them). Look for the orange arrow:

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For some reason, the farmer has allowed the fields to flood, and for an even more obscure reason, he has permitted them to remain flooded. Waders in unprecedented numbers have been attracted for a short stopover as they fly south down the Trent Valley to Africa. Previously, I would only have thought of Stoke Bardolph for the incredible stink of the sewage works that are down there, but this is really something else. It’s just like a hide at Cley-next-the-Sea, with Curlew Sandpipers, Spotted Redshanks, a dozen or so Dunlin and some Greenshanks.

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There is  a single stint, which causes us a little excitement as Steve and I try very hard to turn it into a Temminck’s Stint.


But it must, unfortunately, stay as a Little Stint. Still, it was a good try.

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The only negative thing about the whole evening is the failure of the Hobby to appear at the appointed time.

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There is at least one, if not two, birds in the area, and it, or they, often hunt over the woodland on the opposite side of the river. It’s even been seen knocking around in the gardens of neighbouring Burton Joyce, a riverside village. Tonight, though, there’s nothing.
Never mind – it’s a really brilliant wader site for somewhere as far from the coast is this. What a pity, therefore, that only a few months later, despite the impassioned pleas of a number of different conservation bodies, the farmer  should plough up the land without compunction, and what could have been a brilliant inland nature reserve is lost forever. So much for a democratic society. We are about as democratic as the Democratic Republic of East Germany is democratic. If you own the land, you can do whatever you like with it, irrespective of how many people subsidise you with their taxes and would like some kind of input as to what is done with the land.

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