There was still enough light to read a book as I packed up a few essentials for the night ahead, tagging along on an RSPB Scotland corncrake survey. I would be picked up just before midnight and wouldn’t be back until the light returned again at around 330am. The last rays from the sun, which was skimming just under the rim of the horizon, cast a purple and pink glow, silhouetting three distant croft houses and painting the lochan beside my tent with colour. Behind me, to the south-east, the full mokoon hung over the distant mountains of Beinn Mhor, Beinn Choradail and Hecla. It would be a good night for it.
South Uist is a land of water and sky, her thousands of pools and lochans range from those a few metres across to Loch Bi, a large brackish loch that divides the island almost in two and across which a causeway carries the main road northward. Looking at a map, there seems more water than land in South Uist, and the arrangement of islands and pools looks, for all the world, as though the divine had cut the intricate shapes of the lochans into the rock and then flung the cut pieces into the sea to form the vast archipelago of low lying islands East of Uist and Benbecular.
On the west of South Uist, and all along the Atlantic coastline of Eilean Siar, the Western Isles, from Barra to the Butt of Lewis, are long white beaches, mile upon mile of fine white sand. Were the swimmer to turn and head straight out, the first landfall they would make (if they missed the islands of St Kilda and Rockall) would be Newfoundland. Look closely and you’ll see that the sand is not made of angled grains of silca, but tiny flakes of unimaginable billions of sea-shells, crushed by the fierce Atlantic and washed up on these shores over thousands of years. It is this shell sand, which covers not only the beaches but the whole of the west side of the island, which creates the machair (pronounced with a soft ch a bit like in ‘loch’) a unique, wildlflower-rich meadow habitat, which is now the last remaining sanctuary of the corncrake. This is where we would be tonight – counting corncrakes for the second of two annual surveys.
At 1145pm Ben was at the door wearing beige overalls and a beanie hat topped off with head-torch. We made our introductions and I hoisted myself inexpertly into the passenger seat of his Landrover Defender. “She’s 21 this year,” he said tapping the steering wheel affectionately. We set off slowly into the gloaming with our windows open and I leaned out, straining to hear the characteristic krkkkkk krkkkk call of the male corncrake, setting out his territory and shouting out to females to come and get him. This sound was once familiar in every county in Britain and Ireland, but with rapid farm mechanisation and a change to early harvesting crops, corncrakes have been the collateral damage and by the 1930s were absent from most of England and Wales and much of Scotland. The stark reality of modern farming with a summer harvest and machinery driven from the outside of the field into the centre in a decreasing spiral is that any corncrakes and their chicks are herded towards the centre where they inevitably meet their end.
“Crofting offers a much more corncrake friendly system of farming which is why the last corncrakes remained in these machair habitats” Heather Beaton, the conservation officer on South Uist, had explained to me earlier in the day. “Corncrakes love the machair which is sewn in a rotation, with two years of rye or oats for cattle food – and then two years left fallow.” The soil on these coastal crofts is very sandy and delicate so ploughing is very shallow and is very low input, with seaweed being used for fertilizer. In the fallow years wildflowers immediately spring up as the seed bank remains near to the surface and you get lots of clovers and vetches that enrich the soil for the next crop. It’s the vegetation of the machair that is so popular with corncrakes and they generally choose higher cover to call in which means they are seldom seen.
We stop in a layby on the single track road at the first point Ben expects to hear a corncrake, he gets out a sheaf of large scale maps with annotations showing where corncrakes were seen on the first survey this year and in previous survey years. “We do two surveys a year as corncrakes will stop calling once they have paired up, but as soon as the females is sitting on eggs, he will start calling again in the hope of getting a second female, or even a third” he says. The period they are out of action for egg laying is about two weeks and so the surveys take place two weeks apart to make sure they catch corncrakes that were not calling during the first survey. We strain our ears to listen, I hear the contented sound of roosting geese on loch Bi, and the keeek keeek of an alarming oystercatcher but don’t hear a corncrake.
We move on, stopping every few hundred yards, switching off the engine to listen. Snipe are everywhere, their “chip chip” call rising above the bugle of the island’s few resident whooper swans. Every now and again the low vibration of a drumming snipe drifts over. One of nature’s strangest sounds, it’s made by their tail feathers rubbing together as they perform their airborne dance of climbs and dives. But still no corncrake.
We pass Ben’s own croft and he points out his fields which are home to his three cows and his sheep. In his yard are parked another two landrover defenders, a VW camper and two cars. “You can never have too many landrover defenders” says Ben “and anyway, they stopped making them so their value is going up really fast”. I ask if he’s planning to do them up and sell them and he says “I might do in a few years, they’ll be worth so much by then. Either that, or they’ll be a couple of piles of rust in a field” he laughs. He has a calling male on his croft but it is uncharacteristically silent tonight. We move on.
A few hundred meters later we hear our first corncrake of the evening – it sounds loud to me but Ben assures me it is still a couple of fields away and we drive on. We get out of the landrover just down the road and listen, it is definitely louder, and we pinpoint it roughly on the map, we will need to check it again when we drive down the parallel road and can hear it from the other side . This stop, start, listen, continues for the next three hours, getting a little too exciting when we stop on the main road and Ben shuts off the engine, which also cuts the lights. As we sit dark and unpowered on the main road I look anxiously in the wing mirror, checking for approaching traffic from the rear.
At one croft the corncrake has positioned itself between the croft house and a barn and had managed to create a natural amplifier by reflecting its voice off both buildings. We stand between, listening to the twin echos and feeling grateful that we aren’t the people trying to sleep in the house. By this time it was 2am, Sauchihall Street in Glasgow would just be getting busy.
Just past this house Ben shows me another field that is part of his croft. “These two fields came as part of my croft because the previous owner had bought these off an uncle,” crofts were originally designed to be too small to support a family, meaning that they would need to take paid work on the estate, often harvesting kelp, to subsidise their income so some crofters join crofts together for some economies of scale. But crofting is still only part of an income today: Ben works a couple of days a week for RSPB but also does work off-island from time to time.
We head down onto the MOD land, this land is shared by all the crofters in the township and use of it is decided by the grazing committee. There are agreements about what date cows can go on, what date for sheep and how many of each. This ensures the sustainability of crofting in such a fragile soil. When rockets are being fired into near-space from their common grazings, the crofters are paid a daily rate for their loss of use of the land.
“Oh no that’s the exhaust gone – did you hear it” says Ben suddenly. “I told you that you can’t have too many landrovers, I’ll need to use one of the others on tomorrow’s survey”. The lights blaze from all the MOD buildings but no one seems to be in. There’s some headlights coming towards us, and I look around the landrover at the pairs of binoculars, notebooks and detailed, large scale maps of the area. This could look a little suspicious. But the headlamps turned out to be two floodlights positioned by chance at exactly the right spot.
After mapping several more corncrakes, we are done and Ben drops me back at the tent. The sun hasn’t quite risen above the horizon, but it is almost light. A short-eared owl flits across the bog behind the lochan and the snipe join the other waders in their dawn flights. It’s looking like this is going to be a very short night.