Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of the fantastic success that we have had at Hope Farm with increasing key farmland breeding bird populations since 2000: skylarks quadrupled, linnets quintupled, yellowhammers doubled, lapwings, yellow wagtail and grey partridge all colonizing the farm since RSPB bought it. Overall our key breeding bird populations have increased by 190%.
There have been two species which to us have stood out by their absence, or erratic appearances. One of these are corn buntings. Corn buntings, or fat birds of the barley, were once a very common bird right across farmland in the British Isles but has suffered huge declines since the 1970's. They were found from Shetland to Cornwall, from western Ireland to the Suffolk coast. They are now extinct in Ireland (north and south), extinct in Shetland, extinct in Wales and have suffered huge contractions in range in England and Scotland. It is a species which really relies almost entirely on farmed landscapes to exist in the UK and western Europe, but one that has really struggled to adapt to the changes in modern farming.
Singing corn bunting copyright: Andy Hay/RSPB
For us at Hope Farm it has always been one of the species that has teased us most. Within 5 miles of the farm there were two reasonable breeding populations, but yet at Hope Farm territorial birds have only been recorded irregularly and breeding was last confirmed in 2000. All this despite providing reasonable quantities of high quality habitat and resources through agri-environment schemes: plentiful insect food during the breeding season through flower rich margins and abundant seed food in the winter through unharvested wild bird cover plots.
It was on one of these wild bird cover plots last winter that a small group of corn buntings shared the plot with over 700 yellowhammers, reed buntings and linnets. At least one of the corn buntings hung on into the spring and started singing raising our hopes. This coincided with one of my research colleagues (and wife!) starting some research trials here at Hope Farm aimed at improving breeding success of the corn buntings by providing safer nesting habitat. This was being done through deliberately planting strips of barley at double the normal density within a standard spring barley crop, and two small areas of winter and spring wheat undersown with clover.
The corn bunting was singing from a hedgerow alongside the undersown wheat, and not far from the double drilled strips in the barley. Hopes were raised further that our singing corn bunting would attract a mate and stay to breed, perhaps in one of the research plots. Of course finding corn bunting nests is not easy. They nest within the densest parts of the crops often close to, or on, the ground. Several RSPB researchers have become specialists at finding corn bunting nests during their research work over the last nine years. So it wasn’t really a surprise, but still a great moment, when I was told that a nest had been found with 4 eggs in it. Three of those eggs went on to hatch and eventually two chicks left the nest. High fives all round!
Corn bunting chicks at Hope Farm copyright: Rosemary Setchfield/RSPB
Corn bunting nest and chicks in the 'Corn Bunting' wild bird mix at Hope Farm copyright: Maureen Reeves
But was the nest in one of the experimental plots? Sadly not, that would have been too much to hope for. However, the nest was in the area of unharvested wild bird cover where they had been feeding during the winter. As part of the mix the cereal based bird crop had been undersown with clover and at the start of the spring we decided to leave this plot alone to provide a second winter of seed food. The undersown clover soon started growing strongly, and became a fantastic nesting habitat and a resource full of insects, food for the corn bunting chicks. So it was still a success that a habitat and resource designed to help farmland birds had worked, in this case for the first corn buntings to definitely nest at Hope Farm since 2000. In a further great twist to the story, the provider of the wild bird cover mix had named this particular mix....., yes you’ve guessed it ‘Corn Bunting’! Nice one.
With this successful breeding and with at least one, and possibly two, other singing corn buntings on the farm this year we have high hopes for the future. We are now delivering high quality habitat specifically designed for corn buntings, and importantly providing it in the right place on the farm. Hopefully this will lead to a revival of our breeding population to rival that of our skylarks, yellowhammers and lapwings and I will no longer look at the other local breeding populations with envy.
Tree sparrows next......
In case you missed it - read Martin Harper's thoughts on the implications of Brexit for wildlife-friendly farming here. It's worth a read, and we'll continue to assess the implications for nature as further details become available.