Urgent action needed to transform fortunes of rare farmland bird
3 August 2012
Media and Communications Officer
New research has highlighted the need for urgent action to transform the fortunes of one of Scotland’s fastest declining farmland birds.
Once widespread across Britain, the corn bunting is now rare in Scotland with only 800 breeding pairs, confined to parts of the eastern lowlands and the Western Isles. Over a 20 year period, an Aberdeenshire population of this multiple brooded, crop nesting bird declined by 91% from 134 pairs to just 12.
The joint study by RSPB Scotland and Dr Adam Watson, recently published in the journal Ibis, found that gradual changes in crop management, particularly an increase in field size and decrease in weed abundance, reduced the availability of safe nesting sites and food sources the species depends on.
As cereal crops have become less weedy, more corn buntings may now be nesting in grass silage fields where they are especially vulnerable to harvesting operations.
Researchers also determined the increase in field size reduced the availability of insect-rich field edge habitats and elevated song posts, such as fences, that males use when establishing and defending territories.
Dr Adam Watson, who monitored the corn bunting population in each year of the study said: “When I first studied this population in 1989 it was thriving, and I saw winter flocks hundreds strong. Last summer we only found one pair, which failed to rear any chicks. To me in 2012, the familiar farmlands seem silent and empty. It is tragic.”
Allan Perkins, RSPB Scotland Conservation Scientist said: “Intensive crop management and removal of field boundaries, resulting in fewer weeds and the insects they support, together with earlier harvesting of cereals and mowing of grass has had a detrimental effect on the corn bunting. This is a species that favours low-intensity farming and it is vital that such systems are preserved, or habitats replicated through agri-environment schemes.”
A study published last year in the Journal of Applied Ecology*, demonstrated agricultural grant schemes, when targeted effectively, had a positive impact on corn buntings.
Amy Corrigan, RSPB Scotland’s Agriculture and Rural Development Policy Officer, said: “Thanks to good ecological research like this we know exactly what is needed to save the corn bunting in Scotland, and we have the agri-environment schemes and farmers capable of delivering it. However, we currently face the prospect of a lengthy gap in funding for agri-environment schemes due to ongoing negotiations in Europe on the CAP. A break in schemes would be extremely detrimental to conservation effort directed at this once common farmland bird. We hope the Scottish Government will demonstrate its commitment to addressing biodiversity declines, and indeed the livelihoods of those farmers working hard for nature, by ensuring schemes critical to the conservation of vulnerable species like corn bunting can continue during this period of financial uncertainty.
“Scottish Government are currently consulting on their 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity. In it they recognise the need to develop a conservation programme for priority farmland species in a parlous state. We agree and suggest that the corn bunting should be a priority species for this programme.”
· Conservation insights from changing associations between habitat, territory distribution and mating system of corn buntings Emberiza calandra over a 20-year population decline (Allan J. Perkins, Adam Watson, Hywel E. Maggs and Jeremy D. Wilson) was published in IBIS on 21 June 2012.
· The corn bunting is one of Europe’s most severely declining farmland birds, and numbers in the UK fell by 87% between 1967 and 2009. Corn buntings favour open landscapes with cereal cultivation, and nest on the ground within growing crops or tall dense grass, making nests and chicks vulnerable to harvesting operations. Where suitable safe nesting habitat is available, corn buntings rear two broods during a breeding season of over 3 months from late May to early September. They mainly eat cereal grain and weed seeds, supplemented in summer by insects such as caterpillars and grasshoppers that they feed to their chicks.
· The study area covered 3645ha of coastal farmland near Stonehaven in eastern Scotland.
· *Adaptive management and targeting of agri-environment schemes does benefit biodiversity: a case study of the Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra (Allan J. Perkins, Hywel E Maggs, Adam Watson & Jeremy D Wilson) was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology on Wednesday 9th February 2011.
· Through the Common Agricultural Policy, almost £700 million is granted to farmers and crofters in Scotland each year. The majority of support is granted as Single Farm Payments - £433.8 million in 2010-11. Much of the remaining support is granted through various schemes under the Scottish Rural Development Programme, including agri-environment measures. The budget for these measures in 2010-11 was £58.3 million (or 7% of total CAP support) . This was cut however for 2011-12 by almost £10 million, to £48.9 million. Together with previous cuts, this will represent a total cut of more than one-third over five years. In the context of the wider Rural Affairs and Environment budget, agri-environment support is taking a disproportionately large hit whilst many other budget lines remain stable. This has serious implications for the amount of targeted management that can be achieved.
· Reform of the CAP is currently under discussion with changes anticipated from 2014. The European Commission’s initial reform ideas were published on 18 November 2010 and the paper highlights the key role agriculture plays in the conservation of farmland biodiversity. RSPB Scotland is calling for agri-environment measures to remain a central component of a reformed CAP and for funding for such measures to increase in order to meet commitments to halt the loss of farmland biodiversity.
· Agri-environment funding comes from Pillar 2 of the CAP (Rural Development Programmes) and consequently runs in 7 year cycles. The current programme is due to end at the end of 2013 and a new programme should start at the beginning of 2014. However, for the first time, the CAP negotiations involve the European parliament. This might make reaching agreement slower than normal and there is widespread speculation the timetable will slip by at least a year. To add to this, the current programme is winding down already. As yet, there have been no agri-environment assessment rounds announced for next year, the last year of the programme. If this remains the case, and there is a year gap before the start of the next programme, it could mean no new main stream agri-environment applications between now and 2015, with those agreements starting in 2016. We do anticipate there will be some sort of financial bridging arrangements however, to get through this period. Our challenge to Scottish Government then is to ensure that at the very least these arrangements include the continuation of agreements for priority bird species like corn bunting that would otherwise have run out in this time.