A corncrake in the kitchen

Inishbofin has retreated, for the moment, to a long, grey shadow on the horizon, veiled in a haze that is not quite rain

Inishbofin has retreated, for the moment, to a long, grey shadow on the horizon, veiled in a haze that is not quite rain. This wintry separation makes a phone call from friends at the East End seem all the more bizarre: they have a corncrake in their kitchen and what should they give it to eat?

Corncrakes have been part of Inishbofin's summer, almost without interruption, through the long decades of decline. Two birds were calling there this year - two of fewer than 200 singing males surviving in the whole of Ireland. And now this precious little oddity, missing the boat for migration, rescued from an East End cat in the third week of November.

It had a bit of a mauling, but nothing was broken. On first handling, it tried a crake or two deep in its throat, which may suggest a male. It has been pecking away happily at oatmeal and mashed potato, a working substitute for seeds. Occasional beetles, spiders, flies and worms will be even more to its taste.

Corncrakes are usually gone from Ireland by mid-October, but hangers-on have been recorded right through to February, "hiding in holes and chinks" as one naturalist put it. One bird, kept in captivity at Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, in the mid-1800s, lived for more than six years.


Since the Inishbofin bird, thoroughly restored after a week of tender care, shows no desire to fly, its hosts are building it a luxury chicken-coop, proof against cats and the island's sharp-eyed kestrels. Restoring it to the wild, if that is feasible, will be another day's work.

The migration of corncrakes some 5,000 km to south-east Africa seems at first thought so unlikely that one can fully understand the folklore that had the birds changing into moorhens for the winter and back to corncrakes in spring.

They seem such ill-designed fliers, ponderous as little chickens. Yet, as one century-old report put it: "The repeated occurrence of the corncrake several miles from shore - killed striking against (lighthouse) lanterns between 100 and 200 feet above the sea - must satisfy the most sceptical that this species can fly at a high level with great power and velocity."

When the bird's dramatic decline began to register with ornithologists, the chance that something untoward was happening on the journey between southern Africa and Ireland was an obvious line of inquiry. Later, after much fieldwork, came the consensus that farming changes here were to blame.

The need for a harder look at the stresses of migration - having to cross, for example, a greatly enlarged Sahara - is urged again in a new book by Gordon D'Arcy, a seasoned ecologist. He is also quite open to the idea that the corncrake has had its evolutionary day and is now "bowing out" naturally, like the Californian condor. The desperate case of Crex crex gives special point to his fine study of Ireland's Lost Birds (Four Courts Press, £14.95 pbk), a deeply-researched celebration of 11 birds that once enriched the island's wildlife and culture. But he uses it to make the point that human culpability may not always be the whole story behind bird extinctions: nature, too, can have its reasons.

The book is far less angry in its conclusions, as he admits, than it would have been 20 years ago: the eco-warrior has matured and mellowed and even rediscovered some optimism. Human impact, nonetheless, was basic to the loss of most of the birds he portrays, with equal elegance in words and drawings.

The destruction of the forests must certainly have cost us the goshawk, the greatspotted woodpecker and the capercaillie. The last was a splendid game bird, the coileach feadha or "cock of the wood", almost as big as America's turkey. Its bones turned up in the 1980s in the famous Mesolithic midden at Mount Sandel near Coleraine, thus settling arguments about whether or not it was ever a native bird.

Its optimal habitat is Scots pine forest, and when this died out, it gradually adapted to mixed hardwoods. It may have lingered until late in the 1700s, but steadily ran out of trees. D'Arcy has visions of Scots pine forest reinstated in upland Connemara or near the Burren, and furnished with capercaillie and other lost birds.

Bog and wetlands supported another set of birds, notably the marsh harrier, bittern and crane. Many country people still call the grey heron a crane, which blurs the loss of the original, far grander, bird, almost as tall as a man. It nested remotely in the bogs and migrated in spectacular, wildly trumpeting flocks.

But cranes were long gone by the time of major drainage in the mid-1800s - they were avidly hunted as game birds and were the ultimate quarry for a falconer. Drainage of bogs and marshes was a more direct cause of the loss of an bonnan bui, but the bittern, with its booming call, was also hunted for food and by 1900 had become a scarce winter visitor.

ALONG with many naturalists, D'Arcy hopes that abandoned cut-away bogs of the midlands can be used to create extensive new tracts of fen and reedswamp. Bringing back some eagles might actually be a lot easier, if poisons can be eliminated from the countryside. A reintroduction programme for golden eagles is already in prospect in Donegal, and Charles Haughey's efforts to restore the sea eagle to Inisvickillaun rehearsed the basics of what will always be a formidable exercise. "Osprey platforms" have been built in trees at several Irish lakes, to put the idea of nesting into the heads of birds that now visit us from Scotland. Without the gamekeepers and trophy-collectors who so persecuted the magnificent "fish-hawk" in the last century, the iascaire cairneach might well return.

Enough has changed to give Gordon D'Arcy a much more hopeful perspective on the future. A great strength of his book is that one shares, with slow and warm surprise, what might be possible.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author