by Stuart Croft - Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Field Officer
Go back a couple of generations and the plight of one particular species was not a good one. The cirl bunting – a sparrow-sized bird, closely related to the yellowhammer - gets its name from an Italian translation meaning plump and chirpy. Deprived of its favoured requirements within its preferred traditional, lowland farmland habitat (over-wintered stubbles, insect-rich grasslands and thick hedgerows), it was a bird heading towards extinction in the UK.
Male cirl bunting in Cornwall by Nigel Climpson.
Thankfully, help came in the nick of time and thanks to the efforts of the RSPB and farmers in its remaining out-post of Devon the population began to rise from the early 1990s, as an increasing area of land became managed under Countryside Stewardship. However, though numbers had increased dramatically, its range had not. A project to reintroduce the cirl was required if this bird was to become familiar in parts of its former range and so the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project was begun on the Roseland Peninsula in south Cornwall in 2006.
The population has now increased to reach in excess of its target level of 40 pairs. A lot of this success is due to the provision of the key winter foraging areas - typically spring-sown barley stubbles where the cirls seek out natural weed seeds, as well as patches of bird seed mix. Both these habitats are provided by the local farming community, which is so important for not just helping the cirl bunting, but other farmland wildlife too. A growing number have adopted agri-environmental schemes in the form of ELS and HLS. On one such farm where HLS prescriptions for cirl buntings are in place, cirls have returned to breed this year after they last did so back in the 1990s.
Female cirl bunting in Cornwall by Nigel Climpson.
Though the weather so far has not been favourable, cirls are not put off by early failure and can persist breeding well in to August. So, if the sun does shine this summer, then there will hopefully, be a few more cirls out there to carry the population forward and ensure the establishment of a Cornish cirl bunting population once again.
Yes, you are right, areas of bird seed mix are very useful habitats and ones that we are always keen to incorporate within the HLS prescriptions as they are so beneficial to a whole host of farmland birds. They are well suited to being located in corners of fields that are often difficult to use for a more commercial use.
Yes the RSPB seem really good at increasing numbers on really rare birds,pity that the decline in lots of birds suffering large decreases is continuing,personally think more small areas of special wild bird seed mixture would help some of them.