A charity called Songbird Survival has been in the press a lot over the past couple of weeks. For those of you that haven’t come across them before, Songbird Survival believe that predation by the likes of crows, magpies and sparrowhawks is a major cause of songbird decline. They believe “that there must be sensitive control of selective predator populations to aid the recovery of songbirds”. They aim to prove that there is a need for such control through commissioning research projects.
Recently, and the cause of the media interest, Songbird Survival has commissioned the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to carry out “the first ever fully experimental study to examine the impact of corvid removal on farmland songbird productivity.”
In this study four sites will be chosen at random, and within these corvids (crows, magpies and their kin) will be removed from one area, and left in another. The populations of songbirds will be monitored, and then comparisons made on the productivity of corvid free areas with those in which crows and magpies are left.
All very interesting. The question I ask myself though is whether any of this is necessary.
Predators eat prey. Magpies will in the breeding season take the eggs and youngsters of blackbirds. Crows will do the same. And, although outside the scope of this project, sparrowhawks catch and eat starlings. And lions eat zebras. And killer whales eat seals. And so on. It’s quite natural. This isn’t to say of course that it’s not distressing to watch – we felt this keenly last year when our own garden became the feeding ground for a young female sparrowhawk for a couple of months.
It is however quite a leap to go from observing a predator eating it’s prey to claiming that this a major cause of the prey’s decline. The thing with “prey” is that, over millions of years of evolution, it’s worked out numerous ways of dealing with predators. Think about it for a moment. Any prey species that was not able to adapt to the presence of predators would indeed decline – in fact, it would soon become extinct.
At a population level our songbirds have evolved to deal with “the predator issue” simply by having lots of young. Our blackbirds, great tits and blue tits have through millions of years of trial and error worked out that every year, from one season to the next, some of their brood will be lost to disease, some to harsh winters, some to predators and so on. They are masters of probability. They know that if they produce, say, ten youngsters in a season, on average one or two will survive to breed. And if this happens, the population is safe. In other words, they’ve factored predators (and all sorts of other pressures) into their plans. It’s as simple as that.
The problem for songbirds, or indeed any species, is when the population encounters issues they’ve not “factored in”. In other words, problems arise when new additional pressures are brought to bear on a population that mean the original calculations don’t work; that instead of eight out of ten juveniles dying, nine or all ten die. This is when declines occur.
The songbird I know best through my time with the RSPB, living and working here in south Devon, is the cirl bunting. Cirl bunting almost became extinct as a breeding species in the UK in the late 1980s, the last remaining population of just 118 pairs clinging on around the south Devon coast.
They have, over the years been the subject of intense study. Their decline was due to three things. In winter, cirl buntings need stubbles, land left fallow after crops that traditionally provided weed seeds and spilt grain on which they could feast. But changes in agricultural practice in the 60’s and 70’s meant that cereals could be planted in autumn and grow through the winter for a better harvest the following year. So, in short, the availability of winter food dropped, quite rapidly. Our cirl buntings had not factored in “sudden loss of food in winter” into their strategies.
In summer, cirl buntings are rather partial to large insects, particularly crickets and grasshoppers. These provide both protein and moisture to help raise healthy youngsters. But in the post war agricultural revolution the use of pesticides to increase crop yields resulted in a consequent decline in the abundance of large insects. Again, cirl buntings had not factored in “sudden loss of main food source in summer” into their strategies.
And lastly, cirl buntings nest in hedgerows and scrub. I think you can probably work this one out. Cirl buntings had not “factored in” widespread loss of hedgerows. Combined, these three new issues caused the rapid decline in cirl buntings.
But cirl buntings have recovered – they are a songbird that’s doing well. Their population is now over 800 pairs, eight times what it was in the late eighties. And they have recovered because farming methods in south Devon have changed. Over the past two decades the hard work of farmers, with support from environmental stewardship schemes, has resulted in cirl buntings being provided with winter and summer food, and nesting space alongside modern farming practice.
And crucially, in terms of this debate, they have flourished in the presence of crows, magpies, jackdaws, sparrowhawks and any other predator you might choose to mention. Rural south Devon is little different than anywhere else in terms of the populations of these species.
But the point is, it was never the presence of predators that was the problem. Like all songbirds, cirl buntings know how to deal with predators. What they didn’t know was how to deal with a catastrophic decline in the abundance of food and nesting space brought about by rapidly changing farming practices.
Reversing the declines of songbirds in the wider countryside is all about conservationists and farmers working together with a support system in place that allows good quality produce to be produced alongside good quality habitats. It has, in our opinion, nothing to do with predator control.
The RSPB is obsessed with birds of prey at the expense of songbirds. This is a claim that has been doing the rounds for a little while now, most recently in a less than complimentary article in Country Life magazine.
It’s an intriguing claim. But are we really obsessed with birds of prey here in the south west? And do our songbirds pay a heavy price for this scandalous fanaticism?
Birds of prey are wonderful creatures. They fire the imagination with their aerial acrobatics; inspire awe with their mastery of the air. And quite rightly we campaign on their behalf. We campaign against their persecution. We get angry when we hear of birds being shot or poisoned. To see the x-rays of the peregrine found dead in Gloucestershire last year after being shot in the vicinity of her nest was a sobering experience. Full of pellets, the agony of her last moments is beyond imagination.
Do we obsess about this? Yes we do. And we will do all we can to stop it happening? Yes we will. So the first part of the claim is perfectly true.
It’s the second part of the claim, the assertion that we are not interested in songbirds that falls well short of the truth.
Anyone who actually knows anything about our work in the region knows that we work as hard for songbirds as any other group of birds. Indeed, since moving down to the south west in 1995 I’ve spent more than a little time promoting the interests of one particular song bird, the cirl bunting.
From a low point of just 118 pairs in 1989, a population restricted entirely to south Devon, the population of this colourful songbird is now blossoming. At the last count there were over 800 pairs, with a healthy reintroduction programme into neighbouring Cornwall. Its a songbird on the up, thanks to our work and the huge efforts of famers who have taken this bird to heart. And in 2008, with the kind support of our members and the local council, we even bought our cirl bunting its own nature reserve at Labrador Bay near Shaldon.
Yes, but that’s just one species I hear the critics snipe. Fair enough, but let’s have a little look at some of our other work for songbirds. In Cornwall we work with farmers to safeguard the most westerly population of corn buntings. In Devon and Dorset we manage land for the benefit of Dartford warblers and woodlark. In Wessex we’ve been working for years for a wide range of songbirds including tree sparrow, yellow wagtail and corn bunting. In Somerset we manage land at Swell Wood for one of the world’s best known songbirds, the nightingale. In Gloucestershire we protect pied flycatcher, wood warbler and redstart in our magnificent woodland reserves at Nagshead and Highnam Woods.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. We are as obsessed with songbirds as we are with birds of prey. And this extends to birds in gardens as well. We run hugely popular projects such as Big Garden Birdwatch and Make your Nature Count to give people across the West Country an opportunity to share their own love of garden birds and help contribute towards a proper understanding of their distribution.
In short, the RSPB is interested in all birds. Naturally we have our priorities. As a charity we have finite resources and must make sure that we spend our money wisely on the most deserving projects. But our list of priorities is most definitely not restricted solely to birds of prey.
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.