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Cirl bunting reintroduction

Colour ringed male cirl bunting singing

Image: RSPB - Nick Tomalin

Historically, cirl buntings were present in many parts of southern Britain and as far north as north Wales. The shrinking distribution is attributable largely to changes in farming practices, such as the switch from spring to winter cropping, the reseeding/fertilising of grassland and hedge removal. .

The building of new houses and roads is another key concern as this threatens cirl buntings in remaining habitats on urban fringes and reduces the potential for their expansion, particularly on the west and north of the current range where they are still declining. The cities of Exeter to the east and Plymouth to the west also add to this blocking effect.

The RSPB and Natural England believe that the Government’s Biodiversity Action Plan's long-term objective, to see cirl buntings re-established in other parts of southern England, is only likely to be achieved in the near future through reintroduction. This is because cirl buntings are strict residents and most birds spend all their lives within about 1-2 km of their birthplace. Natural recolonisation is unlikely and if it were to occur, it would be slow and restricted by large areas of unsuitable habitat.

Project objectives

  • To establish a new self-sustaining breeding population of cirl buntings geographically separate from the Devon population.

Key dates so far

  • In 2004, the RSPB (working closely with the other partner organisations) trialled re-introduction techniques to confirm that this method could be used to reinstate cirl buntings to some of their former range.
  • During the 2004 breeding season, a number of cirl bunting chicks were taken (under licence from English Nature) from nests on land in south Devon. The young birds were hand-reared at Paignton Zoo. Once feeding themselves, the hand-reared birds were moved to an outdoor aviary. When they were acclimatised and assessed as ready, they were released back into the wild at a site in Devon already supporting cirl buntings, and therefore known to be suitable habitat.
  • In 2005 we were able to confirm that birds reared and released in this way could survive the winter and join the wild breeding population in the following spring. This success led to adopting Rear and Release as a viable technique for re-establishing cirl buntings.
  • The full scale reintroduction to Cornwall began in 2006.
  • Since 2007 an RSPB farmland bird advisor has been employed to liaise with landowners and secure further suitable habitat in the area to allow for the wider natural spread of released birds.
  • 2011 was the last year of Rear and Release. The population continues to grow and is comprised of mostly wild-bred birds for the first time.
  • In 2012 the target level of 40 breeding pairs was achieved

Work planned or underway

Following the success of the trial re-introduction technique used in 2004, a full-scale re-introduction began in May 2006. The plan was to release a minimum of 60 birds into the Cornish release site every year for four years, being later revised to six years.

Potential re-introduction areas were identified by the RSPB in areas that used to hold cirl buntings until a few decades ago, taking into account the availability of suitable habitat, the climate (cirl buntings can be very vulnerable to prolonged cold weather and snowfall), and sympathetic land ownership.

The results of this study showed that a location in South Cornwall was the most suitable. It is believed that the cirl bunting's recent disappearance from this area was due to very small numbers of breeding birds being unable to support a sustainable population. Since this time the area has benefited from the hard work of local farmers and the work of the National Trust by increasing the amount of suitable habitat available for cirl buntings. As part of the project, an RSPB farmland bird advisor works with landowners to secure further suitable habitat in the area, mainly through Environmental Stewardship, to allow for the wider natural spread of released birds.

In 2006, 75 chicks were taken from nests in Devon for hand-rearing.  Of these 73 were successfully hand-reared and released into Cornwall. The health of the birds is closely monitored by vets from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) throughout the hand-rearing process. Their advice and expertise ensures high welfare standards and minimises the possibility of any potentially damaging disease being introduced by the cirl buntings, following their release, which could affect other birds in Cornwall. 

Since 2006, the target of a minimum of 60 chicks released per year set at the start of the project has been met with the exception of 2007 and 2011 when 47 and 52 were released respectively. To date more than 370 birds have been released, with 2011 being the final year of releases.

All the released birds are colour-ringed and their survival and movements are recorded throughout the year, helping to build a picture of the population at the release site. Monitoring in summer 2012 has revealed that 43 pairs were present. 58% of these were wild-bred birds, which tend to be longer lived and up to twice as productive compared to the hand-reared birds. It has also been encouraging to see their range expand in to new areas further from the release sites. Though the weather during 2012 has been exceptionally poor, the birds have produced, what will be hopefully, enough youngsters to maintain the population at or close to its current level.

Results

In 2007 we confirmed the first breeding in Cornwall for around 15 years.

In 2008 we recorded birds moving further afield, and saw unringed birds (those born in Cornwall are not colour-ringed) interacting with the reintroduced population.

The summer was considerably drier in 2009, and there was plenty of insect food available to feed chicks. This resulted in chick productivity being higher than in previous years, with at least 42 young birds fledged from nests in Cornwall.

In 2010 the breeding population increased again, with 16 pairs recorded making nesting attempts and rearing at least 39 young.

2011 saw the population rise steeply by 75%. The 28 pairs raised a total of at least 69 young.

2012 was a milestone year, with the project target of 40 pairs reached. 44 pairs formed across the monitoring area. The wettest summer for a century severely suppressed productivity, with just 65 fledged young being recorded.

Gallery

Who to contact

Stuart Croft
Cirl bunting Reintroduction Project Officer
E-mail: stuart.croft@rspb.org.uk

Partners

This is a partnership project involving the RSPB, Natural England, the National Trust and Paignton Zoo, with assistance from the Zoological Society of London, to help cirl buntings expand their range outside of Devon as recognised in the Government's Biodiversity Action Plan for the species.

Funding

The Countdown 2010 Biodiversity Action Fund has been a major funder of the project 2006-2010. This grant scheme, launched by English Nature (now incorporated within Natural England) in 2005, supported projects that will help achieve the UK Government's commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010.

The project has received £173,670 funding from SITA Trust, through the Landfill Communities Fund.

As lead partner, the RSPB will continue to fund the project for the project's life along with other significant contributions from the other vital partner organisations such as Paignton Zoo.

In addition, the BBC Wildlife Fund provided £5000.