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)