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Rare farmland bird reaches major milestone

Last modified: 17 November 2016

Male cirl bunting sitting in hedge

UK population has reached 1078 birds

Image: Andy Hay

• Latest population survey of one of Britain’s most threatened farmland birds has revealed an increase in numbers to reach the major milestone of over a thousand pairs
• Cirl buntings were on the brink of extinction only a quarter of a century ago with barely more than 100 pairs left in Britain
• Dramatic rise in numbers down to 25-year recovery project between the RSPB and local farmers in the south west of England to help manage their land in a nature friendly way
• Success of recovery project shows what can be achieved when farmers, conservationists and nature work together

The cirl bunting – one of Britain’s most threatened farmland birds – has continued its trail blazing comeback from the brink of extinction after the UK population reached more than 1000 pairs, according to the latest national survey by the RSPB.

The dramatic rise in the population of the cirl bunting – a small sparrow-sized farmland bird – to 1078 pairs comes at a time when many other farmland birds continue to struggle. The jump in numbers follows a 25-year project between the RSPB and local farmers in the south west of England to help manage their land in a cirl bunting friendly way providing year round food supplies and habitat for the threatened species.

Under the Cirl Bunting Recovery Programme, led by the RSPB, advisers worked with farmers to help them take up Countryside Stewardship Schemes – a government programme that allowed farmers to earn payments for making nature friendly choices - to manage their land for cirl buntings. These options include growing spring barley that after harvest is left as weedy stubble to provide seed food during the colder months and planting margins of grassland at the edge of their arable fields, which provides insects and spiders for summer food.

The initiative has led to an incredible 8-fold increase in the number of cirl buntings in the UK, from being on the brink of extinction in 1991 to a more stable population of 1078 pairs in 2016. It is hoped numbers will continue to climb and colonies will spread into other parts of southern England where they were once common and widespread before suffering huge declines as a result of the loss of their food sources and nesting sites.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “The recovery of this charming little bird is a remarkable conservation success and shows what can be achieved when farmers, conservationists and nature work together. To go from being on the brink of extinction to have over a thousand pairs in just 25 years – bucking the overall downward trend for most farmland birds – highlights how effective this project has been. 

“It is down to the care and hard work farmers in Devon and Cornwall have put in on their land using the tailored schemes that has made this remarkable comeback possible. The success is one of the best examples of how conservation groups and farmers can work together to achieve amazing results for wildlife. Without this action the cirl bunting would have almost certainly disappeared from our shores altogether.”

The majority of the cirl bunting population remains confined to Devon, although the first successful reintroduction programme of a small bird in Europe means a thriving cirl bunting population can now be found in Cornwall – 65 pairs according to the latest survey. Numbers are expected to continue to grow and it is hoped that the cirl bunting will return to more of its former areas in southern Britain in the years to come. 

A wide variety of farmland wildlife are likely to have benefitted from the effects of the project. Other birds such as linnets, skylarks and yellowhammer are all known to benefit from a boost in stubble winter food sources, and species like brown hares, greater and lesser horseshow bats and rare arable plants are being seen more in fields once again.

Chris Sutton-Scott-Tucker, owner of Great Combe Farm in Devon, said: “Before the RSPB recovery project started in the early 1990s I hadn’t heard or seen cirl buntings before. But the project made it easy to use a Countryside Stewardship Scheme to manage my land to help wildlife without seeing a drop in my farming income. Since then I have enjoyed seeing all different types of wildlife making a home on the farm and I look forward to continuing with the RSPB in the future.” 

Mel Squires, South West Regional Director at the NFU, said: “Success for the cirl bunting has not been through chance but a true, committed partnership for 25 years between conservationists and farmers working together. It has been a relentless focus on delivering a combined objective where all have wanted the same outcome – a positive and resilient future for this fantastic bird – and a great example of making conservation work in tandem with a modern farming setting.”

Martin Harper concluded: “The success we have seen in just 25 years is down to both the commitment of local farmers and the support they have received from the Government. It demonstrates how both conservationists and farmers both want to see our countryside abundant with nature and the sights and sounds of our iconic species. And we would ask Government to continue to recognise and reward those farmers who are doing good work to give nature a home.”

To find out more about the recovery project and to see how the RSPB are continuing to work with local farmers to help cirl buntings in the UK – www.rspb.org.uk/cirlbuntingstory

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