The corncrake (Crex crex) is a migratory bird listed on Annex 1 of the European Birds Directive (79/409/EEC). Formerly widespread in Belgium, numbers had declined from 300 pairs in the 1950s to less than 50 pairs by 1994. It had disappeared completely as a breeding bird from many areas.
The bird prefers river meadows with tall grass and meadow plants, moist farmland such as hayfields, with limited cutting or fertiliser use. In Belgium, the bird was threatened by greatly reduced wet grassland habitat. Particular factors were lowered water tables and other changes leading to desiccation, the deployment of artificial fertilizers, early haying, conversion of grasslands to arable land, afforestation, and tourism.
This LIFE project concerned five distinct sites distributed across both Flanders and Wallonia, which were traditional breeding sites for the corncrake. The sites supported different types of grassland, as well as polders subject to flooding, lakes and reed-beds. Most of the sites had been designated as SPAs and contained habitats listed in Annex 1 of the European Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC).
There were no breeding pairs of the corncrake at all in four of the five sites and changes in land use at the fifth site were threatening the still relatively intact ecosystem. However, corncrakes had already been found to be able to successfully recolonize areas which were managed to meet their specific requirements. The sites harboured the last populations of the corncrake in Belgium and were also important for other vulnerable birds - including certain species of geese, duck and shrike - and insects: marsh fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) and southern damselfly (Coenagrion mercuriale).
This project was funded in two phases. Both phases - LIFE94NAT/B/001516 and LIFE95 NAT/B/004796 – are presented as one in the description below.
The overall aim of the project was to maintain and restore corncrake numbers by protecting sites through land purchase, habitat restoration and suitable habitat management.
To enable the corncrake to successfully recolonize its former habitats, quite major conservation measures were foreseen to raise water tables and manage grasslands as hay fields.
The project planned to carry out an in-depth assessment of the corncrake population, including consideration of the factors affecting population levels and conservation measures undertaken at other sites. This work aimed to enable the development of management plans and agreements for the continuous appropriate management of sites
Land acquisition, which had already proved to be a successful strategy in practice, was seen as a necessary prerequisite for many management actions. The project targeted purchase of around 220 ha of key (potential) habitat, which it hoped to have recognised officially as nature reserves by the regional authority.
An information campaign, focusing on the farming community in particular, was planned.
The project successfully purchased and managed important areas for the corncrake. It set in place the management arrangements to facilitate the long-term recolonisation by the corncrake of key sites in Belgium.
The project team completed a detailed assessment of the status of the corncrake in Belgium. This led to the publication of a scientific article on the status of the corncrake in Wallonia in the bird journal Aves.
With LIFE support, 234 ha were purchased across the five target sites - 129ha in Wallonia and 105 ha in Flanders. Additional land was also purchased with funding raised from provincial and local support. Management agreements were concluded with neighbouring farmers to graze and/or mow the purchased land following strict management agreements. Notably, 120 ha in Fagne Famenne in Wallonia were then managed in this way.
Habitat restoration work undertaken at the five sites included tree removal, hedge planting, pond creation, clearance of derelict buildings, raising of water levels, and fencing to manage grazing.
The project saw the completion of management plans for three core zones in Flanders. A further five management plans for core areas - two in Flanders and three in Wallonia - were due for completion in 1997. Additional management plans for areas around the core zones were also planned.
During the project, the regional government officially recognised three sites - Kalkense Meren, Schulensbroek and Benedenlop Zwarte Beek - as nature reserves. A further three applications were planned for 1998 and applications for an additional eight sites were being prepared to follow-up the project. Surveys and studies outside of LIFE-project remit. Included detailed survey of vegetation of each site purchased, assessment of nutritive status of late mown grass, monitoring of corncrake friendly mowing techniques, raising farmer awareness of corncrake conservation issues. Networking and exchange of information with BirdLife International partners.