Author: Lynne Roberts
A desperate situation
The cirl bunting is the UK's rarest farmland bird. Having once been widespread in southern England and Wales, the UK population of cirl buntings suffered a dramatic decline from a peak in the 1930s. In 1989, a national survey recorded just 118 pairs, mostly in the south of Devon.
Urgent action was desperately needed to prevent the extinction of the cirl bunting in the UK as a breeding bird.
By 1989 the cirl bunting population had contracted to a small area in south Devon (pink area). Male cirl bunting (left); female cirl bunting (right). Images: Andy Hay – rspb-images.com
The rapid changes in farming practices in the second half of the last century particularly impacted the cirl bunting, which is an extremely sedentary species. Cirl buntings need all their year-round feeding and nesting requirements close together, since they only move around 2 km between breeding and wintering areas and are thus heavily reliant on diverse mixed-farming systems providing a mosaic of habitats.
The decline in traditional mixed-farming practices led to the loss of closely situated invertebrate-rich grasslands and overwinter stubbles rich in arable plants - both key foraging habitats for the species.
How the needs of cirl buntings can be delivered
The habitat needs of cirl buntings can be met through implementing elements of Farm Wildlife's six key actions, which outlines how key farmland habitats and practices can be managed to help wildlife thrive. They benefit particularly from the following elements of the Farm Wildlife approach:
- Seed rich habitats to provide food throughout winter. Key foraging habitats include winter stubbles and wild bird seed mixes.
- Dense hedges or scrub in which to nest. Cirl buntings favour bramble and gorse near the coast and thick hedges within a mixed farmland landscape. The nest is normally near the outside of hedges and scrub making it vulnerable to in-field operations. A buffer strip adjacent to hedges can be extremely beneficial.
- Plentiful supply of insects in the breeding season, especially crickets and grasshoppers, to feed growing chicks. Key habitats which can deliver this are species-rich grassland, semi-improved cattle-grazed pasture, field margins/buffers, summer fallow and tracks.
Action for cirl buntings
In the early 1990s, the Cirl Bunting Project (a joint project run by the RSPB and Natural England) was set up with the aim of saving the cirl bunting from extinction in the UK.
This could only be achieved through working with farmers and landowners to improve and increase the area of suitable habitat in the birds' remaining range in South Devon.
Cirl buntings had clung on here because there was still mixed farming and research initiated in the late 1980s highlighted how important spring barley left as stubble was for winter feeding. As a result, a bespoke option (spring barley left as winter stubble) aimed at cirl buntings was made available within the original Countryside Stewardship scheme.
Many willing and enthusiastic farmers and landowners became involved in managing the land more sympathetically to support the needs of the cirl bunting and, importantly, continued or started to grow spring barley. They also carried out other beneficial work, such as providing dense hedgerows with scruffy edges, pockets of scrub and rough grassland, using further agri-environmental scheme options to help support these activities.
'RSPB first encouraged us to farm in a way that might encourage the cirl buntings and other birds. We are now organic and since 1990 when we entered the Countryside Stewardship Scheme we have seen a dramatic improvement in habitat and species – the cirl has certainly benefited. Going forward I hope that farmers will use less pesticides and we find more ways of feeding the growing population in a wildlife friendly way.'
Geoff Sayers, Noss Mayo
The Cirl Bunting Project has been a great success and is one of the UK's best farmland species recovery stories.
By 2009, The National Cirl Bunting Survey (RSPB/Natural England) recorded 862 territories, with some range expansion, and in 2016 a milestone of over 1,000 pairs was reached – an amazing result that was way beyond expectations at the start of the project when the aim was to stop them being lost as a breeding species from the UK.
Monitoring has shown that the population increase has been achieved by habitat management delivered by farmers mainly through agri-environment schemes.
'We have loved being part of this success story. Very satisfying, and we will look forward to getting more cirl buntings on our land and further afield - hopefully!'
Sue Hadow, Blackawton, Totnes
The arable management implemented to benefit the cirl bunting is also contributing to the conservation of threatened arable plants. During farm site visits, Cirl Bunting Project staff noted species such as Broad-fruited corn salad, Weasel's snout and Field woundwort and some of the cirl bunting farms were found to have assemblages of arable plants which are of national importance.
The broad-leaved weeds most beneficial to birds are generally not the highly competitive ones. Their presence within a crop is dependent on low-input cultivation, and less productive soils are ideal for this type of management. Over-wintered stubble will allow some arable plants to set seed and will supplement the spilt grain as winter food for seed-eating birds such as finches, yellowhammers and corn buntings.
Lessons from the project
The project showed that the changes the farmers implemented in south Devon created the right habitat mosaic for cirl buntings and other wildlife to thrive. Initially, the focus centred on the cirl bunting's remaining haunts, but as the project developed it moved on to creating stepping-stones of habitat to draw birds into new areas. This helped the species to spread and has given the once fragmented population more security.
Although farmers were creating habitat at a farm level, they were working as part of a landscape-scale project, which is why it has been so successful. Each farmer contributed a piece of the jigsaw vital to safeguarding the species.
As the people at the heart of the project, the farmers and landowners needed the right support to manage the land sympathetically for wildlife. They required agri-environment schemes which could be practically integrated into their farming systems, with advice and help on the ground to implement scheme options and ensure that the benefits could be sustained.
The legacy of nearly 30 years of the Cirl Bunting Project
The legacy of the Cirl Bunting Project is the continued survival of the cirl bunting in the UK, but the project has also shown that well-supported and practical agri-environment schemes, alongside engaged farmers, are vital to ensuring that wildlife and viable farming can co-exist.
Cirl buntings remain on the IUCN Red List and are classed as 'Vulnerable'. If support for the right changes to farming practices is not there and agriculture intensifies again in the area, or the right balance of mixed-farming habitats is not maintained, cirl buntings and the other wildlife that has benefitted could be in trouble once more.
'I feel very privileged to have been part of the cirl bunting project from the outset, and have hosted several people hoping to spot a cirl bunting. I will carry on the conservation work on my farm as long as I can.'
Edward Baker, South Allington
Farm Wildlife key actions for Cirl Bunting
Wet features -
Further information on the cirl bunting story
Find out more about cirl buntings here.
More information on the Cirl Bunting Project can be found here and on the Cirl Bunting Action Hub, which is funded by Action for Birds in England, a conservation partnership between Natural England and the RSPB, with further support from the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (RBBP).
If you would like further information on how your farm could be part of the Cirl Bunting Project in South Devon, please contact Cath Jeffs (firstname.lastname@example.org).