The Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project - a partnership project between the RSPB, Natural England (NE), the National Trust and Paignton Zoo, with assistance from the Zoological Society of London – began in 2006. The aim of the project is to re-establish a self-sustaining population of cirl buntings on the Roseland Peninsula in south Cornwall, by taking chicks (under license from NE) from nests in healthy populations in south Devon, and translocating them to the site in south Cornwall. Here they have been hand-reared by aviculturalists from Paignton Zoo, and released into an area of suitable farmland habitat. Though reintroductions of other bird species, as well as other forms of wildlife, have been successfully undertaken in the UK and further afield, the reintroduction of a small, song bird like the cirl bunting has not been attempted before in Europe.
Image 1: Chicks are translocated from healthy populations in Devon to Cornwall where, after being hand-reared and ringed, they are released into an area of suitable farmland habitat. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
The first batch of young birds was released in 2006, and releases have continued for a total of six years, until 2011. Throughout the project all the birds have been monitored by the field team – a process aided by the fact that all the hand-reared birds have been fitted with a unique combination of coloured leg-rings. This has allowed a great deal of information to be acquired relating to many aspects of the birds’ life histories, eg. their seasonal movements, habitat selection, breeding ecology and longevity.
Image 2: Colour-ringed adult male Cirl Bunting feeding at the Cornish release site. Ringing has provided valuable insights into the life-history of the species. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
We have learnt that, just like in Devon, the Cornish birds do not wander far, choosing to settle in an area that, crucially, contains all their year-round requirements ie. weedy stubbles to forage for seeds in the winter, thick hedgerows where nests can be located away from disturbance and extensive grasslands rich in variety and abundance of insects to feed chicks in the summer. Thanks to the willingness of the local farming community to adopt Environmental Stewardship, in the form of HLS, more of this preferred habitat mosaic exists on the peninsula than it did just a few years ago.
Image 3: Habitat of Cirl Bunting on a Cornish farm. Thick hedgerows protect nesting Cirl Buntings from disturbance. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
Image 4: Weedy stubbles are an important food source for foraging Cirl Buntings in the winter. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
During the breeding season pairs are usually faithful, though we have recorded several instances of polygyny – one male breeding with two (even three!) females simultaneously - whilst ‘divorce’ – with partners from a pair splitting and re-pairing with different partners – is novel behaviour that has been recorded. Though cirl buntings are relatively short-lived, with 2-3 years being typical, the oldest known colour-ringed bird so far, died just one month short of his fifth birthday. We are hopeful that there are still a few remaining ringed individuals that stand a chance of exceeding that lifespan.
Following the first recorded breeding of the reintroduced birds in 2007, the population has been steadily increasing, both as a result of further releases, and due to productivity in the breeding population. Despite some poor summers, which have limited breeding success, the population exceeded its target level of 30 pairs in 2012, with 44 pairs recorded. However, the exceptionally wet summer of that year resulted in very low productivity, resulting in a decline in the population the following year. Fortunately, the following two summers have been a vast improvement and the population has responded well. Last year 39 pairs raised well over 100 fledged young – the highest number in any year by far - and we are optimistic that 50 breeding pairs is a realistic possibility this year – a great milestone to reach in the tenth year of the project and one step further forward in establishing this bird back in the Cornish landscape.
Image 5: Cirl Bunting habitat, unimproved grassland and gorse bushes. Farmer's help in providing suitable habitat in translocation areas, often via HLS, has been crucial to the Cirl Bunting's success. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
The success so far shown from this project is a great example of team work – where various different individuals and organisations have worked collaboratively. We would like to thank all those who have supported the project over the years, in particular the farmers who have given us access to their land, which has enabled us to monitor the expanding population - without their support this project would not have worked.
For more information on the Cirl Bunting Re-introduction Project see the Project's pages online here .
By Stuart Croft: Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Officer
As many of you will be aware, agri-environment schemes in the UK are key to helping farmers deliver for wildlife. With the recent reform of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), new or reviewed schemes are on the cusp of being launched, with guidance already available for the new scheme in Scotland.
In England, Defra have developed an entirely new scheme to replace Environmental Stewardship (ES), and in a fit of slightly confusing nostalgia, have gone back to the future and decided to call it Countryside Stewardship (CS). Those with longer memories than ten years will know this was the name of the predecessor to ES. And in many ways the new scheme attempts to combine the best bits of ES with the 1991-2004 version of Countryside Stewardship (which I’ll call ‘CSS’ to differentiate it from the new ‘CS’).
To replace the Entry and Higher Level Stewardship (ELS and HLS), CS will have a higher-tier and middle-tier. In addition to these, there will be a small Hedgerows and Boundaries Capital Grants Scheme. The higher-tier will look and feel much like HLS, but will be slightly simpler in its design. The middle-tier though will be quite different, with steps taken to iron out some of the design flaws that hindered the effectiveness of ELS as a scheme.
Image 1: Certain species and habitats, such as Lapwing (above) and other breeding waders in lowland wet grassland, will continue to be a focus of the higher-tier.
So where ELS allowed total free choice and offered the same £30 per ha payment rate for all, regardless of the options chosen, the CS middle-tier will be targeted, with payments made per option. Applications will also be competitive and made in a single annual window of July to September. These will then be ‘scored’ against each other, with those applicants that selected the options identified as a priority for their holding likely to fare best.
The aim of this change is to ensure that those who deliver the most for the environment get priority for what is a reduced budget, with a shift to ‘pounds per option’ rather than per hectare helping to rebalance the scheme toward the options that will be most effective, such as wild bird seed and pollen and nectar mixes. The ultimate ambition is that a better targeted, competitive scheme will lead to the right management in the right place, providing better outcomes for the environment and better value for money.
Image 2: Countryside Stewardship is designed to favour options, such as wild bird seed mix, which deliver more benefit for wildlife.
But although some of the changes are significant, this should be seen more as an evolution, rather than a revolution in scheme design. Although there has been much talk of ‘white space’, and many farmers, especially those in ELS, not being eligible, this is misplaced. All farmers will be able to apply for CS, and everywhere will be a priority for something. For example, the new Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package will be available throughout lowland England. The basis for competition will therefore not be where you are, but what you are willing to do.
These changes though are necessary. Although there are many examples of ELS agreements that really deliver, in general terms these are the exception rather than the norm. With the State of Nature report revealing ongoing declines across a broad array of wildlife, there is now a general recognition that ELS spread the jam too thinly, and that more focused, targeted and higher quality interventions are now needed. We’re hoping the farmers will embrace CS to deliver these.
Image 2: More targeted and quality interventions under Countryside Stewardship will help declining species like the Yellowhammer.
Many farmers will undoubtedly say, “with 5% greening, I can’t do anymore”. As many will come to see though, in the land of CAP greening, 5% doesn’t actually mean 5%. Through a series of labyrinthine weightings, coefficients and nitrogen fixing crops, many farmers will be able to deliver their greening requirements with a minimum of land take. We’d obviously encourage farmers to not go for the bare minimum, and as part of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE), we’re asking farmers to enhance their Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) through voluntary action. A key part of this message is asking farmer coming out of ELS to retain what they’ve already got.
But it’s inescapable that retention isn’t enough. If you’re a farmer with a recently expired ELS agreement, or your agreement expires this year, or maybe you’ve never had one but want to do something for wildlife, we’d urge you to have a crack at Countryside Stewardship.
If you do, there is more information available on Defra’s website, with more guidance expected imminently. There may also be support available from the RSPB to help you, or perhaps one of our partner organisations such as The Wildlife Trusts, FWAG and GWCT.
By Tom Lancaster, RSPB Agriculture Policy Officer
Image 1: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com), Image 2: Nikki Williamson, Image 3: Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)
East County Down farmers recently attended a demonstration day to learn how they can help birds and wildlife on their land.
Cecil Nelson from Annadorn Road hosted the event to show how wildlife can thrive as part of a productive farm business. Those attending heard about Cecil’s success in helping threatened seed-eating species such as yellowhammer, which have increased by 100 per cent on his farm in just five years.
Image: Cecil Nelson (right) shares his tips on helping nature on his farm with David Sandford, Paddy Mackie and Edward Manning-Hambuller (Claire Barnett).
Cecil employs a number of agri-environment options, including planting wild bird cover, to ensure birds have an abundant supply of seed throughout the harsh winter months.
Rough grass margins and well-managed hedgerows on his farm also provide plenty of feeding and nesting opportunities in the spring and summer.
Philip Carson, RSPB NI conservation advisor, commented: “Cecil’s farm provides a perfect working example of how farmers can make a huge difference for wildlife when given the right support and management advice
“The high level of attendance at this event highlights the fact that many farmers see wildlife as an important part of a healthy countryside, and that they are willing to help it in whatever way they can.”
Local farmer Philip Bell from Ballynahinch added: “The visit to Cecil Nelson’s farm was a great opportunity to meet like-minded farmers with an interest in maintaining and enhancing wildlife.
“Being able to see at first-hand the practices Cecil has put in place as a result of the advice from the RSPB was interesting and useful. The flock of yellowhammers I saw in the hedgerows and feeding in the wild bird cover are testament to the success of the project and I’ve been encouraged to employ similar practices within my own farming system in the future.”
The RSPB provides free farmland bird surveys and management advice to farmers within east County Down. To find out how you can help wildlife on your farm, please contact Philip Carson on 028 9049 1547 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
By Philip Carson, RSPB Conservation Advisor
Photo: Claire Barnett, Senior Conservation Officer (Species and Habitats), RSPB.