Last week the Devon Partnership NHS Trust destroyed a winter stubble field at their Hillcrest site near Exminster in Devon. The site was home to a nationally important population of cirl buntings. The full story and our reaction is described here

The NHS Trust have formally apologised in writing for the actions at Hillcrest and requested a meeting with us to discuss the future of this site. Naturally we still regret the loss of the stubble in which the birds feed over winter, but will now pursue this matter positively with the birds' interests at the fore. In the short term, the RSPB is working with the team on site (with whom we've had a great relationship for years) to provide supplementary feed for the cirls.

However, due to the publicity around the case we've had a lot of people asking what they can do to help. Which is always brilliant, thank-you! So ...

Very soon, the inspector will be making his report on the Teignbridge Local Plan.  This will determine where development will be looked on favourably and vice-versa.  Parallel to this the RSPB has been doing a lot of work with Teignbridge planners to help them develop a strategic approach to cirls in the area.

Now is a very good time for our supporters, to write to the leader of Teignbridge council, copying in their local MP, to ask in your own words:

1  That the planning system in Teignbridge ensures that there will be no net loss of cirl buntings, indeed there should be a net gain. 

2 That the very best sites should be protected.

3 That in the situations in which development needs genuinely override cirl bunting presence, robust mitigation and compensation should be required of developers to find space alongside development which can be managed appropriately, long-term, for cirls – so that the species experiences at worse no net loss, but preferably net gain, through the planning process.

People can find out more background information on cirl buntings here

The leader of the council’s details are here

Your MP’s details are here

If you live in Teignbridge, please also copy the letter to your local councillor - details here

And do remember, the RSPB is not against development per se. Indeed, nature can gain from development if it’s done properly, strategically, and in discussion with conservationists – Wallesea, and its relation to Crossrail, is one striking example of this. Our key concern with Hillcrest – the reason we were particularly “livid” - was that there was no conversation with us on a site with which we’ve been involved for over a decade – the land was just ploughed. We had no chance to talk about how we could work this out with the NHS for the benefit of cirls.

Conserving birds in situ is always preferable.  However, with a species such as cirl bunting, which is dependent on agricultural land managed in a fairly specific way, but whose habitat is not protected outside the breeding season, the birds are wholly dependent on farmers continuing to farm the land sympathetically.  If a landowner wants to develop that land, and sees cirl buntings as an obstacle to securing planning permission, there is nothing to stop him or her farming the land in a way that reduces the value of it for cirl buntings.  We therefore try to work with farmers and developers in these situations to ensure that if development is going to happen, cirl buntings don’t lose out.  We do this by seeking ecological mitigation and/or compensation.

I realise that the “mitigate and compensate” approach isn’t to everyone’s taste. Especially if a patch of land next to where you live is being developed and you wish to stop it – and you see cirl buntings as one means of doing this. But the planning system doesn’t work like that.

Put simply, if land is allocated in the Local Plan for housing, then the principle of development at the site is established, and a developer is likely to put in an application for planning permission. At that point the first thing that we will encourage them to consider, if the site has cirl buntings, is mitigation. Can cirl buntings be “saved” through the way the site is designed, for instance by avoiding development of the areas of particular value to them, and seeking the appropriate management of that land, which can include enhancement of features and habitats and provide long-term security. If yes, then we will try to ensure that such measures are included as a condition to the permission and the work is done. And the cirl buntings should not lose out.

If you can’t mitigate, then the next thing that is considered is off-site compensation. Can alternative land be found to safeguard the population as a whole? If yes, then the developers pay for this compensation. Our reserve at Labrador Bay for instance is compensation for the building of the Kingskerswell Bypass. And it’s working. In enabling the acquisition of Labrador Bay, the outcome of the building of the road, notwithstanding its other environmental dis-benefits,  will result in a substantial net increase in cirls.

However, in other places, if there is no suitable mitigation and compensation, and a nationally, or internationally important population or site will be damaged, that’s a red line – particularly where such a development contravenes the EC Nature Directives (the Wild Birds and Habitats Directives). In such situations, we will endeavour to prevent the development. The development at Talbot Heath in Dorset was one such because it threatened the integrity of an internationally important heathland complex and there was no suitable mitigation or compensation available. And we fought and won that one. But that was the exception.

So to safeguard cirl buntings, most of the time we need to work WITH the planning authorities and developers and their consultants. But it's always a good thing if the local council understands the strength of local feeling for these precious birds, and is therefore minded to work with organisations such as ourselves for a good outcome. Which is why writing in support of cirl buntings is something our members could really help us with.

But always remember, practically and pragmatically safeguarding populations is our job. Sure, we could be out there with placards bluntly opposing all development anywhere near any cirls. But if we followed that route, we’d almost undoubtedly end up with fewer birds, because it simply wouldn't protect them and we’d have failed in our job. 

And don't forget - if you are a member, your support helps us deal with cases like this and is absolutely vital - thank you. And perhaps, if you are not a member, you might like to consider joining us.