Environment

Cirl Bunting is back from the brink of extinction

Cirl Bunting

Cirl Bunting is a small, finch like bird (a relative of the Yellowhammer) which, until this year, was faced with almost certain extinction.

According to the RSPB: The cirl (pronounced sirl) bunting were once widespread and common across much of southern England, but in recent years, they have become rare and only found in south Devon, mostly confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.

As a result of this, a conservation project was established. Habitat was protected and developed and the results have been outstanding:

There has been an astonishing 630 per cent increase in the cirl bunting population since the RSPB Cirl Bunting Project began.

The Cirl Bunting Project is widely recognised as a model of how farmers can work in a way that is productive for them but which also helps wildlife. This is backed up by RSPB science.

In 2009, 54 per cent of the cirl bunting population was recorded on land managed through an agri-environment scheme (the Countryside Stewardship Scheme or Higher Level Stewardship), and 95 per cent of the cirl bunting population is within 2 km of land managed through agri-environment agreements.

Over the last 10 years the project has directly influenced management of over 10,000 hectares of land.

There is now a self-sustaining reintroduced population in Cornwall.

The Guardian interviewed Martin Harper, RSPB conservation director, who said: “The recovery of this charming little bird is a remarkable conservation success and shows what can be achieved when farmers and conservationists work together for nature. To go from being on the brink of extinction to have over 1,000 pairs in just 25 years – bucking the overall downward trend for most farmland birds – highlights how effective this project has been.

Under the initiative, farmers took up country stewardship schemes which provide financial incentives for making nature-friendly choices. These ranged from leaving crops to go to stubble after harvest and provide seed food during colder months to planting grass margins at the edge of fields to support habitats for insects and spiders that would act as a summer food source.

Many other birds have benefitted from the effects of the project, including linnets, skylarks and yellowhammer, which are all known to gain from a boost in stubble winter food sources.

Harper added: “Without this action the cirl bunting would have almost certainly disappeared from our shores altogether.”

Cirl buntings were once common and widespread across much of southern England but suffered huge declines when their food sources and nesting sites were lost due to changes to agricultural practices in the 20th century.

The majority of the UK population remains confined to the fields and hedges of Devon, although the first successful reintroduction programme has established numbers in Cornwall, with 65 pairs according to the latest survey. The RSPB said it expects numbers to continue to grow and hopes the species will return to more of its former areas.

But the good news for the cirl bunting comes at a time when other farmland birds continue to struggle. The number of farmland birds in the UK has declined by 54% since 1970, according to the State of Nature 2016 report, with 19 species suffering a 48% decline since 1970.

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