Saving the cirl bunting from extinction in the UK

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:

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.

Over-wintered stubble is an important food source for cirl buntings and other farmland birds. Image: Cath Jeffs

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

Success!

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.

By 2016 an impressive increase in the range of the cirl bunting population had been achieved
Cirl bunting population increase between 1989 and 2016

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

Wider benefits

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.

Arable plant seedlings in a spring barley crop. Image: Lynne Roberts

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

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 (cath.jeffs@rspb.org.uk).

Dairy farm creating a buzz

Authors: Gethin Davies (RSPB), Anna Hobbs (BBCT), Stuart Taylor (farmer, Argoed)

Dairying can be a challenging sector for farmers and wildlife. Small margins have driven increasing scale, efficiency and specialisation, which has tended to squeeze out people and space for nature. The number of dairy farmers in the UK has declined by two thirds since 1995.

Argoed Farm in North Wales showcases an alternative vision for dairying, one where nature and minimising environmental impacts are at the heart of the system.

Farming at Argoed

Argoed has been in the family of Stuart Taylor for more than 100 years. He farms it with the help of Robert and Owen Evans who have worked with him for over 20 years. As its current custodian, Stuart feels a strong responsibility to farm it well, and this extends to the farm’s natural environment, from its soil to the wildlife that share the fields overlooking the town of Mold in North Wales. This was a driver for converting to organic in 2000. The 68 hectare farm currently milks around 65 cows, selling milk through the Calon Wen organic dairy co-operative.

'Adopting a low input approach across the whole farm not only allows more space for nature to thrive – it’s also a more cost-effective way of farming.' Stuart Taylor

Stuart has kept faith with the traditional British Friesian cow. They average 6 to 7 lactations (around double the industry average), have excellent fertility and suit his focus on producing milk from grazed grass and conserved forage as he looks to minimise bought-in concentrate feed. The farm used to grow cereals in a rotation with grass but has moved to maintaining the whole farm as permanent grassland, with grass reseeding done by over-sowing into a minimally disturbed soil surface. He feels this brings more resilience to the system with the increasingly unpredictable weather making bare ground at reseeding a challenge.

Stuart has always tried to fit in wildlife conservation measures where he can, such as restoring hedgerows, digging ponds and putting up nest boxes. Recently, along with other Calon Wen farmers, he’s been working with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the RSPB on the Pasture for Pollinators project, which trialled simple grassland management changes to boost pollen and nectar resources for bumblebees and other pollinators.

'As a farmer it’s my responsibility to look after nature and the environment on the farm as best as I can whilst I’m here.'

This project showed Argoed to have a wealth of habitats on the farm, providing the foundations for a rich food web. Although the farm is visibly nature-friendly, we wanted a way to objectively illustrate why and how Stuart’s system delivers for wildlife.

Herb-rich grasslands underpin milk production on Argoed. Image (c) Anna Hobbs

How ‘Fair to Nature’?

We tallied all the various opportunities for nature on Argoed against the criteria of the Fair To Nature standard. This looks at the percentage of the farm delivering the Farm Wildlife key actions, accounting for both non-farmed habitats such as hedgerows and ponds as well as in-field nature-friendly cropping and grassland practices. This information also provides a means to benchmark a farm’s habitat delivery over time, and potentially, with other similar farms.

Established wildlife habitats

Well-established farmland habitats are often the most wildlife-rich. On Argoed, this included a network of dense hedgerows, some small areas of woodland and scrub, and around 3ha of species-rich grassland.

Stuart believes the area of species-rich grassland hasn’t been ploughed for at least 120 years, but did receive inputs of slurry and fertiliser into the 1980s. In the last few decades he has been managing it as a hay meadow and inputs have been restricted to composted farmyard manure. He has seen plant diversity increase and the area now includes abundant ribwort plantain, yarrow, vetch, trefoil and black knapweed, with the occasional orchid starting to appear. The hay is a valued feed for the farm’s youngstock.

The field boundaries are predominantly multi-species hedgerows with many hedgerow trees, both developing and mature. Stuart trims the hedges rotationally to increase flowering and fruiting, and into a dense A shape between restoration events to provide abundant shelter and wildlife habitat.

Dense rotationally trimmed hedgerows provide corridors for insects and other species. Image (c) Stuart Taylor

Although outside the farmed area, a small traditional orchard and farm garden provide early blossom and a wide diversity of flowering plants to help pollinators obtain a continuous source of food. Wet features on the farm include three ponds, two holding water for most of the year, the other seasonally.

Flower and seed-rich habitats within the farming system

As Argoed is organic, there is a need for leguminous plants to bring nitrogen into the farming system. Stuart has been increasingly sowing diverse legume and herb mixes into his grassland, and these provide an excellent source of pollen and nectar for insects if the grazing and mowing management allows them to flower. Such grassland can be included within ‘Fair to Nature’ with a conversion factor, since the wildlife benefits, although positive, are lower per hectare than semi-natural habitats or those created primarily for nature conservation.

Grazing practices allow plants to flower and seed. Image (c) Stuart Taylor

Around 42ha of grassland is periodically over-sown with a herbal mix containing a variety of grasses along with red, white and alsike clover, ribwort plantain and chicory. This grassland area is rotationally grazed or mown for silage, where three cuts are taken with a forage wagon. Having both white and red clovers in the sward caters for both short- and long-tongued bumblebees.

The ‘Pasture for Pollinators’ project trialled leaving unmown strips in the herbal leys to extend the flowering period. If such margins are not left, widescale silage cutting can mean the local landscape can go from ‘feast to famine’ for insects overnight.

Uncut herbal mix strip. Image (c) Anna Hobbs

Bumblebee Conservation Trust surveys identified all Big 7’ widespread bumblebee species to be present on the farm, along with a diversity of other pollinators. In addition to abundant flower-rich habitat, the farm also provides good nesting opportunities for bumblebees and other pollinators through tussocky grass, bare earth in sunny locations on tracksides and field edges, and some dry-stone walls.

Common carder bee. Image (c) Anna Hobbs

Beyond the 3ha of semi-natural grassland, there is another 9ha of long-term permanent grassland that isn’t over-seeded, some parts of which contain a high diversity of flowering plants, including yarrow, self-heal, lesser trefoil, sheep’s sorrel and finer grasses such as sweet vernal. Some of this land is grazed with youngstock and some is made into hay, weather permitting. This area was counted with the legume-rich grassland at a corrected value, rather than as semi-natural, but with ongoing appropriate management this can change in future.
A total of 7.8% of the farm is made up of a variety of well-established semi-natural habitats. The main area of productive but also wildlife-friendly grassland management contributed significantly, bringing the total for the farm to around 23%. Research has shown that if between 10% and 20% of farmland can be managed in a diversity of high-quality habitats, it will provide a major buffer to the negative effects caused by increasing agricultural productivity.

Nature-friendly Argoed

‘In the past, wildlife was a by-product of farming, but farmers now have to make a choice of how nature-friendly they want to be.’

Argoed highlights that despite the immense pressures in dairying, we still have wildlife-friendly systems to champion. We need future agricultural policy to better support farmland habitats and nature-friendly practices for the many public goods they provide and help farming deliver them at scale. But perhaps the most important way we can support nature-positive food producers like Stuart is to buy their produce, giving confidence for more farmers to do similar, and drive the creation of landscapes where farmland wildlife can thrive.

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Fair To Nature habitat requirements

All Fair to Nature farms manage at least 10% of their farmed area in a range of wildlife habitats based on the following specifications:

• Existing wildlife habitats – including native woodland planted on farmland since 1992, semi-natural grassland, heathland and other high nature value habitats – no minimum (contributes towards the 10%)

• Flower-rich habitats – minimum 4%

• Seed-rich habitats – minimum 2% (not obligatory on farms with less than 10% cropped land)

• Wildlife-rich field boundaries and margins – minimum 1%

• Wet features – one feature per 100ha, average size 25m2 (area contributes towards the 10%)

These specifications are based on the Farm Wildlife partnership’s key actions for farmland wildlife. Several habitats have a conversion factor since the wildlife benefits, although positive, are lower per hectare than semi-natural habitats or habitats created primarily for nature conservation.

Managing hedges for pollinators

Author: Steven Falk

It’s easy to be dismissive of insects, yet about one-third of all the food we consume has required a pollinator to put it there, and by pollinator, I don’t just mean honey bees. Nearly one-quarter of Britain’s 24,000 insect species visit flowers and wild bees, hoverflies and moths are especially important. Even the dungflies that sit on cowpats and the blowflies that develop in carrion pollinate flowers. In fact, some research has suggested that honey bees only do about one-third of Britain’s crop pollination.

Image (c) Steven Falk

Farmland provides a variety of broad habitats and more specialised microhabitats that support pollinators and help sustain pollinator abundance and diversity within the British countryside. Hedges and the many microhabitats that they support are especially important, so the way you manage them, or establish new ones, is crucial.

There are five broad ways:

  • As a source of blossoms and flowers for adult foraging
  • As a source of many larval habitats
  • As a windbreak that aids pollinator activity and movement
  • As a source of shade and humidity, especially during droughts and heatwaves
  • As a component of a larger, interacting, landscape-scale habitat mosaic

Hedge blossoms are crucially important in early and mid spring before other flowers have got going, and I’m always keen to promote the concept of a ‘good blossom sequence.’ A simple blossom sequence might just entail blackthorn (peaking mid April) and hawthorn (peaking mid May). But if further blossoming species can be added to a hedge network, this can provide a longer and more continuous source of pollen and nectar. This could include cherry plum, goat willow and common gorse (which peak before blackthorn), field maple and crab apple (which peak between blackthorn and hawthorn), and guelder rose, dogwood and elder (which peak after hawthorn). The choice can be shaped around location and soil type and can be arranged at a farm unit level – I’m not advocating all those species in one hedge! But bear in mind that an abundance of spring blossom will help ensure you see more bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies in summer.

Image (c) Steven Falk

Blossoming hedge trees such as wild cherry, willows or outgrown field maples or crab apples can add to that blossom offer. Hedge trees of all sorts (including ash and oak) can also provide an important larval habitat for pollinators. The foliage can be a food source for herbivorous butterflies and moths. Heart rot and aerial rot holes are the breeding sites for various hoverflies, and any dead limbs or dead trunks in the sun can be a breeding site for a variety of solitary bees and wasps, including the red mason bee – a fabulous pollinator of fruit trees.

Further crucial hedge microhabitats for pollinators are hedge banks, hedge ditches and hedge margins. Hedge banks (which can be very ancient) will often support large nesting aggregations of mining bees. These can be very important pollinators of fruit trees and oilseed rape. Abandoned mouse and vole burrows in banks are important nesting sites for bumblebees. Water-filled hedge ditches can be a breeding site for a variety of hoverflies and also double up as very flowery features, often supporting an abundance of meadowsweet, great willowherb, yellow iris etc. Even where no ditches are present, the margins of hedges can provide a useful source of flowers such as brambles, cow parsley, hogweed, thistles, hedge woundwort and white dead-nettle. That becomes enhanced if you have a decent buffer strip between the hedge and any crop, or a fence that stops stock grazing right up to the hedge.

Image (c) Steven Falk

The final benefit of hedges, which is all-too-often overlooked is their value as windbreaks. Pollinators don’t like strong breezes. Hedges help create pockets of calmer, warmer air that helps pollinator movement and activity. On a cool, breezy spring day of perhaps 10 °C, a sheltered, sunny edge of a field with blackthorn blossom might be reaching 15 °C and supporting huge amounts for pollinator activity. Warm microclimates are also important for the development of herbivorous larvae such as caterpillars and the nesting activity of bees. Hedges play a crucial role in shaping microclimates and therefore pollinator activity.

There is so much – but if I had to recommend just three things they would be:

  1. Enhance your hedge blossom sequences – check what is currently there and consider what extra things could be added that enhance the blossom sequence, especially prior to the Blackthorn peak (given that warm weather increasingly starts in late winter).
  2. Cut your hedges on a 3-4 year rotation (i.e. one-third or one-quarter each year) because less frequently cut hedges produce more blossom, become structurally more diverse, and produce better microclimates (including valuable humid-shaded microclimates within them or on their shaded sides as well as the warm ones on their sunny sides).
  3. Allow flowery hedge margins to develop – encourage those lovely shows of Cow Parsley, Hogweed, Teasel etc. and embrace some limited Bramble, thistles and ragworts. Don’t cut these areas whilst they are still flowery, and don’t feel you need to sow an artificial pollen and nectar mix here if nature is already producing a nice range of flowers.

This is a summary of a very big subject. But I hope it is useful.

 

Introducing Fair to Nature – a new partner for Farm Wildlife

When we developed the Farm Wildlife approach, we wanted to make sure that the advice was not only simple to follow, but based on the latest evidence so that it would work – both for farmers and for wildlife.

A new partner for Farm Wildlife

We are therefore delighted to welcome Fair to Nature to the Farm Wildlife partnership. The Fair to Nature scheme recognises the value of the Farm Wildlife approach, and the six key actions are embedded into the updated Fair to Nature standard. This ensures farmers who are signed up to the scheme really work towards maintaining and improving the habitats on their farms for wildlife and that they are recognised for their efforts by the consumers who purchase the end product.

"Fair to Nature is the only UK farm scheme to deliver the scale of land management that wildlife requires to thrive. And Fair to Nature is not just positive for wildlife! Farmers benefit from increased farm resilience and from links to like-minded brands who want to source nature-friendly produce and products," says Shelley Abbott, facilitator for the scheme.

Delivering habitats

Fair to Nature farms are required to manage at least 10% of their farmed area as a range of wildlife habitats aligned with the six key Farm Wildlife actions. The delivery of these habitats is based on the following specifications:

  • Existing wildlife habitats – including native woodland planted on farmland since 1992, semi-natural grassland, heathland and other high-nature value habitats – no minimum, but contributes towards the 10%
  • Flower-rich habitats across at least 4% of the farmed area
  • Seed-rich habitats across at least 2% of the farmed area, although this habitat is not a requirement on farms with less than 10% cropped land
  • Wildlife-rich field boundaries and margins covering at least 1% of the farmed area
  • Wet features – one feature per 100 ha, average size 25 m2 (area contributes towards the 10%)
  • In-field habitats – no minimum, but contribute towards the 10%

Habitat on a Fair to Nature farm. Image (c) Shelley Abbott
Wider sustainability

The wider sustainability of the farm is also important. Soil, carbon and pesticide management are therefore also key considerations within Fair to Nature to ensure that a holistic approach across the whole farm is adopted, for the benefit of nature and the long-term resilience of the farm business.

If you would like to find out more about Fair to Nature, or you’re interested in signing up, please visit www.fairtonature.org for further details and to register your interest.