The original bunting...
Corn buntings are farmland specialists, found mainly in cereal growing areas, where they nest on the ground, typically in thick grass or cereal crops. Once upon a time, the word ‘bunting’ was used to endearingly describe a plump or thickset person. It is easy to see how this word was garnered for the bird whose fat looking stature epitomised the word, and it thusly became it’s appellation.

The sometimes dishevelled appearance of the corn bunting has sadly done little to further it’s reputation. When the male puffs out his chest to sing the infamous jangling keys song from the preferred song post it can’t help but look a little unkempt. Despite this, it draws the females, sometimes even in their tens, and there are stories of males having managed to mate and breed with over 15 females that have been lured into his territory over the course of the summer.

The Homer Simpson of the bird world?
Not only charged with untidy appearances other character affiliations include obesity and laziness, historically even referred to as the Corn blob! Some descriptions of their song remain equally unflattering, such as, ‘they drone forth their monotonous dirge with almost irritating persistency.’ On the other side of the corn, I‘ve heard very touching things said about this sweet bird, such as how pristine and proud they look during the summer, and, how their song really warms ones heart. However you feel, there’s sincere affection for this quintessentially fat brown bird. And, as is apparent in popular culture, these characteristics often find a soft spot in our thoughts.

A state of emergency!
Well, what did you expect from this blog? Depressingly, corn buntings have suffered severe declines of 84% over the last 25 years and are now extinct in Wales and Ireland, and in Scotland are restricted to the eastern lowlands and Western Isles. Extensive research carried out in the Western Isles, to assess the impacts of changes in cereal harvesting on corn bunting populations, found that the population had declined by at least 62% between 1995 and 2005.

In England, the range has contracted largely towards the arable east, with a single, isolated population remaining on the Southwest Peninsula. This has made corn buntings a red list species and a top priority for the RSPB.

Corn bunting - the miner’s canary of our agricultural environment
Why has this happened? Corn bunting declines have occurred due to the compounded effects of changes in agricultural land management.

Loss of arable production has driven longer-term historical losses in the north and west of Britain. More recently, declines have been linked to changes in cereal farming, particularly the move to autumn planting of cereals, increasing crop specialisation and the loss off mixed farming, the loss of weedy over-winter stubble fields, earlier harvesting of cereals and grass silage, and the indirect effects of pesticides. Phew! Not much then.

All of these factors have reduced food availability throughout the year, while earlier crop harvest has increased the rate of nest destruction. Increased agricultural specialisation and a loss of mixed farming methods have resulted in the removal of extensively managed grassland from most arable areas, which probably provided important nesting and foraging sites in the past.

We need action!
So, what do corn buntings need to help their populations recover? Sympathetic farming systems and targeted land management, backed by expert advisory support, to provide high quality nesting and foraging habitat in the corn bunting range is considered essential to population recovery. As corn buntings are highly site-faithful, a recovery plan needs to be targeted at known breeding localities where there is understanding of potential limitations to population growth.

Sounds corny?
Thankfully, extensive work carried out in targeted recovery projects in north and east Scotland and in Cornwall have both managed to stabilise outlying populations.

In Cornwall, un-harvested spring barley crops that are extensively-managed have been provided at most breeding sites since 2003 through agri-environment schemes. These have been extremely successful in attracting birds to nest productively, and in providing high quality winter foraging. Whilst the population does appear stable, it unfortunately remains extremely isolated. It’s future depends critically on the continued willingness of a handful of farmers to continue providing these crop types, along with the continued financial support of agri-environment schemes.

In east Scotland between 2003 and 2009, research has shown that corn bunting populations continued to decline on farms outside agri-environment schemes, remained roughly stable on farms in the main national agri-environment scheme  but increased on farms which provided bespoke, targeted, RSPB led, corn bunting management, backed up by face-to-face advisory support through the Farmland Bird Lifeline.

A corn bunting’s cornucopia...
So, just what do we need to create one of these? Targeted species recovery work will be needed to continue to sustain strategically important populations. Research needs to continue to test options for creating safe nesting habitat that also provides sufficient insect food for chicks and maximizes winter seed food provision, with the aim of maximising breeding productivity. Information gathered from monitoring and research will need to be used to influence farming policy and practice. This will ensure that mechanisms exist for allowing population recovery, and will enable us to advise and encourage farmers on sympathetic management options and how to integrate appropriate agri-environment schemes into farming systems. Bada bing bada boom, and what do we get? Hopefully a corn bunting’s cornucopia.