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Cirl bunting

Male cirl bunting sitting in hedge

Image: Andy Hay

Cirl buntings are sparrow-sized buntings related to yellowhammers. Both sexes have olive-green rumps (contrasting with the chestnut rump of the yellowhammer). They can be elusive but males can be located when they sing - a brief, rapid, rattling trill.

Cirl buntings pair up during the spring and summer when they will raise two to three broods between April and September. They occur in small flocks during winter, sometimes with other seed-eating buntings and finches. 

Once a common bird of farmland in southern England, cirl buntings were almost lost from the UK in the 20th century. However, positive land management by farmers has helped increase the population from 118 pairs in 1989 to almost 700 pairs in 2003. 

Cirl buntings remain confined almost entirely to south Devon where they are found in areas of traditional farming with a mix of small arable and grassland fields.

Key points

  • Ensure weedy barley stubbles are left over winter to provide a food source.
  • Maintain unimproved/semiimproved/rough grassland and field margins for summer food.
  • Maintain tall, thick hedgerows and scrub for nesting.

What this species needs

Food - lots of seeds and invertebrates

Cirl buntings need seeds in winter. Good sources are spilt cereal, the seeds of broad-leaved weeds from winter stubbles, as well as seeds from set-aside and weedy field margins.

In spring and summer cirl buntings need invertebrates – grasshoppers are especially important food for chicks. Good feeding areas are semi-improved/unimproved grassland, and rough grass field margins.

Safe nest sites - thick hedges and scrub

Hedges should be thick and between two and four metres tall. Cirl buntings’ favoured nesting sites are hedges that include blackthorn, hawthorn and other native species, and patches of dense scrub (gorse and bramble). 

Land management changes that caused the decline of the cirl bunting are linked to loss of seed and insect food sources throughout the year. All the measures described on the Helping cirl buntings page will encourage these birds and will also provide important habitats for other farmland wildlife. Many of these management options can be funded through agri-environment schemes.

Implementation

Mixed farming 

Retain a mixed farm holding of pasture and arable fields with plenty of hedges and scrub. Cirl buntings need their insect and seed food sources, and nest sites, in a small area. They usually forage within 250m of their nest and in winter rarely travel more than 2km to find stubbles.     

Arable management

  • Grow spring barley as it provides a food source during the breeding season and provides the best stubbles. 
  • Keep barley stubbles over winter as they are feeding sites for cirl buntings (and other seed-eating birds). Birds prefer those stubbles with plenty of broadleaved weeds.
  • Grow a barley-based wildlife seed mixture on suitably sited fields.
  • Avoid using broad-spectrum insecticides in crops because insects are important for chick survival.
  • Use selective herbicides to target weeds such as cleavers and barren brome. Spot-spray where possible.  

Grassland management

  • Graze grassland at a low intensity, preferably with cattle, to produce a mosaic of long and short grass and small areas of bare ground, which will be rich in invertebrates.
  • Avoid re-seeding or planting trees on unimproved/semi-improved grassland (often found on the steeper slopes). Seek advice if in doubt.
  • Top weeds such as thistles, nettles and dock, or spot-spray/weed wipe with specific herbicides.
  • Areas left uncut in silage fields are very valuable, eg. margins. 
  • Grassland in orchards can be beneficial especially if managed to create a structured sward.
  • Hay and grain fed to stock outside in winter can provide a rich source of seed.     

Field margins

  • Leave grassland strips around the boundaries of arable and silage fields. Avoid spraying with pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Cut only once every two/three years.
  • Some arable fields will be suitable for uncropped field margins. These are cultivated but not sown, fertilized or sprayed. The resulting growth includes many broad-leaved arable plants and creates important feeding areas for cirl buntings.     

Set-aside

  • Choose naturally regenerated rotational set-aside to provide food throughout the year, preferably after a barley stubble.
  • Cutting or ploughing should be delayed as late as possible. If grass weeds are a problem, treat with selective graminicides only.
  • Grow a wildlife seed mixture. This does not require a derogation from Defra.
  • Carefully sited, naturally regenerated permanent set-aside can provide a rich source of invertebrates.   

Hedge and scrub management

  • Trim hedgerows between October and March (ie outside the breeding season). Maintain hedgerow height of 2-4 metres. Do not trim hedges annually – trim on a rotation once in every two/three years, so that there are always some uncut hedges on the farm.
  • Retain or allow to develop a mosaic of scrub (eg gorse and bramble) and grassland.

Last updated: 26 November 2008

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