Guest blog by Cirl Bunting Project Manager Cath Jeffs
My first encounter with cirl buntings was as a student studying Conservation Management in the 1980s. A group of us were on a birding trip and heading to Penzance. We took a detour to Prawle Point (the most southerly point in Devon) to see if we could find the rare and elusive cirl bunting. We eventually found a pair on our way back to the car park (how often do you hear that about birding trips) and the spectacular back drop of the south Devon coast ensured this was a sighting that I was not going to forget. Little did I know that a few years later I would be moving to Devon to play a part in what has become a remarkable recovery of a rather special bird. The cirl bunting population was probably at their zenith during the 1930s being locally common across southern England and reaching as far north as Cumbria. However, the population collapsed in the mid-1960s. By 1989 the population stood at a perilous 118 pairs and had been lost from the majority of its former range. South Devon, where interestingly it had been first recorded in the UK, held the remaining hope for the species.
Research in the late 1980s / early 1990s pinpointed that changes in farming practices had resulted in a lack of food and nesting sites. In particular, stubbles, a rich source of winter food, had almost been lost from the landscape. The small arable fields that remained in spring cultivation and left as winter stubble around the south Devon coast were a lifeline for cirls and the reason they maintained a toehold in the UK. With an understanding of the habitat needs, work could start on a recovery led by RSPB and Natural England (then English Nature). Happily this coincided with the launch of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme where farmers could receive payments for undertaking management to enhance the environment. In 1993 a Project Officer was employed to work with farmers and promote cirl friendly management. This is where I came in, I joined in 1996 and took over from the previous PO Paul St Pierre who had done a great job raising awareness and building trust with the farming community. This meant I could build on this and spread the message wider. 25+ years later and cirl buntings are back from the brink, the less than 120 pairs is now over 1000 pairs. Birds in south Devon have been joined by a small population in Cornwall, established through a reintroduction project, and they are flourishing at our wonderful reserve at Labrador Bay. The support of the farming community has ensured cirls have a brighter future and I have been privileged to work with great people and a bird that has made us conservationists look good! Having the project featured on Winterwatch is a brilliant opportunity to showcase the work of the project and the 200+ farmers involved. Our farmland wildlife is in trouble and if we want to change this then we need to support farmers managing their land so it continues to contains space for wildlife. Cirls have demonstrated that we can work together and make a difference and that makes me and the farmers involved very proud.
Image by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
England Twite Recovery Project Officer Katie Aspin talks about how the RSPB is working with farmers in the South Pennines to reverse the fortunes of twite.
Twite are hardy seed eating finches that live in remote upland and coastal areas, mainly in Scotland but with small numbers in North Wales, Northern Ireland and the Pennines.
In England, twite were once a common sight in the Pennines, so much so that they gained the nickname of Pennine Finch. However, over the last few decades they have undergone dramatic declines. One of the main reasons is the reduction in their food supply as many wildflower-rich upland hay meadows have disappeared. This has contributed to a 72% decline in the English twite population since 1999. It’s now estimated that there are only 160 breeding pairs remaining in England, the majority of which are in the South Pennines.
In response to this dire situation, the RSPB and Natural England set up The England Twite Recovery Project ten years ago in 2008.
In an attempt to halt this vertiginous decline, we have been working with nearly 70 South Pennines farmers to provide more food for twite during the breeding season.
Funded by Government environmental stewardship schemes, participating farmers have increased the number of wildflowers over their breeding season by reducing stocking levels, cutting meadows on later dates and restoring traditional hay meadows.
One of the farms we’ve been working with is Beeston Hall Farm, near Ripponden. This is tenanted out by Yorkshire Water to Rachel and Stephen Hallos, who have been working with the Twite Recovery Project since its early days back in 2010. They initially got into an environmental stewardship scheme for financial reasons but they soon became enthused about how they could manage their farm to benefit not just their business but also the environment.
They completely changed their business model to accommodate the conservation work on the farm. One of the key goals of their environmental stewardship agreement is to enhance the land to benefit twite, as their farm is well positioned within close range of a number of twite breeding sites. Fourteen of their fields have had the seed of twite food plants (including dandelion, common sorrel, cat’s ear and autumn hawkbit) added to them. This work was done by hand to get the best possible results. A few years on and what were once green fields, mainly with one species of grass, are now flower-rich meadows buzzing with bees and butterflies and full of seed for twite to feed on.
Rachel Hallos says: “We think our meadows look great, especially in summer, and have noticed more birds, bees and butterflies. There has also been the added benefit that our cows and sheep love the hay we produce from the meadows and we get numerous comments about it when we are at shows with our cattle, as it offers such variety. It’s like a taste of sunshine in winter for our livestock.”
Despite this huge effort by farmers, volunteers and project staff, the results from the 2016 population survey showed that twite have continued to decline in the South Pennines. Although hugely disappointing, it’s still early days, as it takes time for restored hay meadows to become fully established. In the meantime, we are continuing to offer support and management advice to the farmers whose fields are being managed as twite foraging habitats. We’ve also been working with some farmers to fill the gaps in the year when food is scarce for twite. This includes planting over 3000 autumn hawkbit plug plants at five farms including the Hallos’, back in September with the help of an excellent group of volunteers.
These plants will hopefully flower and set seed in late July right through into early October this year, providing twite with a food source late in their breeding season. We’re also currently planning a hay strewing trial, which will see over 15 farmers strewing seed-rich hay in some of their fields early in the twite breeding season.
We’re not giving up hope and will carry on doing all we can to keep breeding twite in the South Pennines. This will only be possible with the continuing help of farmers like Rachel, who says: “The farm is a business and as long as it is financially viable for us to do so, we aim to remain a part of the twite project.
“It has been a lifeline to the farm and I would like to think that our farm has been a lifeline to the twite.”
Rachel and Stephen are just one of the landholders who have put so much effort into the project, we are very grateful to them.
The project is run and funded as a joint venture by the RSPB and Natural England with contributions from Marshalls and Yorkshire Water.
ContactsKatie Aspin, Twite Project Officer, RSPB. Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Images by Tom Marshall.
I am a BA Zoology third year undergraduate student at Anglia Ruskin University, with a keen interest in understanding how organisms interact within their environment.
During the summer of 2017, I conducted a study to find out how bees are effected by different flower densities in field margins.
This research could be beneficial in gaining a wider perspective on what society can do to aid the prevention of bee loss in the UK. Given the UK’s high proportion of land use for agricultural activity, it is particularly important that we research the benefits of flower field margins on bee populations.
For this study, I observed three different types of field margins across Hope Farm, each with differing flower densities, counting the diversity of bee species, flowering plants, and the number of bee visits to flowers along each field margin.
As expected, I counted over 85% of the total bee species on field margins with a higher flower density and diversity compared to those of just grass.
Studying ecological based modules at university and participating in the British Ecological Society Summer School, I discovered my passion for conservation biology. Over the next few years, I hope to expand my understanding in the practical applications of preserving biological diversity through a postgraduate Master's degree.
Ultimately, I want to pursue a career in ecological consultancy and feel that this experience at Hope Farm has enabled me to improve my research skills through working independently.
I am currently analyzing data to start writing my dissertation within the next few weeks. If you would like further information on my dissertation journey, feel free to follow me on twitter to see regular updates and findings - @soph_chowder
Images by Sophie Chaudhari.