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Cirl bunting reintroduction

Colour ringed male cirl bunting singing

Image: RSPB - Nick Tomalin

We had previously been successful in increasing the number of cirl buntings in the UK, but we wanted to do more.

The birds that were thriving lived in a very small part of Devon, and we, along with our partners, wanted to help them move back into areas which had previously been home to cirl buntings.

The problem was that cirl buntings are sedentary by nature, and there was a lack of suitable habitat to coax them out of their Devon stronghold. It seemed likely that cirl buntings would struggle to move to new areas, or would do so very slowly. 

So we worked with Natural England to assess the feasibility of establishing another self-sustaining population of cirl buntings by moving (translocating) them to a new area. 

We began these assessments in 1997, and after several years of planning, in 2006, we released the first birds on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall. This was a site we felt had the right habitat, as well as sympathetic landowners.

We’ve been monitoring the area since we released the birds and they’re doing well. There are now over 50 pairs on the Roseland Peninsula. 

It’s an important project not just for cirl buntings; it’s the first time songbird re-introduction has been attempted in Europe so lessons we’ve learnt through this scheme may be useful in other areas. 

The project is now in a maintenance phase - we’re not planning future releases. Instead, we’re focussing on habitat retention and creation, and monitoring.


Project objectives

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

Progress so far

  • In 2004, The RSPB (working closely with the other partner organisations) trialled 'Rear and Release' as a reintroduction technique. This involved removing chicks from nests in Devon, hand-rearing them, then releasing the fledged young back into the Devon site.
  • The following year (2005), we confirmed that birds reared and released could survive the winter and join the wild breeding population in the following spring. This success led to us adopting 'Rear and Release' as a viable technique for re-establishing cirl buntings.
  • The full-scale reintroduction in Cornwall began in 2006.
  • Between 2006 and 2011, a minimum target number of 60 birds were released annually. All birds were colour ringed so they could be identified in the field.
  • From 2007 to 2015, the population in Cornwall was intensively monitored.
  • Since 2007, the RSPB farmland bird advisor has been employed to liaise with landowners and secure further suitable habitat to allow for the wider natural spread of released birds and their own wild-reared young.

Work planned or underway

Hopefully the population is now established and we won't need to release any more birds. We'll continue to encourage suitable habitat, and to monitor the birds. 

Results

2007: We confirmed the first breeding cirl buntings in Cornwall for around 15 years.

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

2009: We had higher chick productivity than in previous years, making it similar to that we had seen in the Devon population.

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

2011. The population rose steeply by 75%. The 28 pairs raised a total of at least 69 young. For the first time since the project began, the population in Cornwall consisted mostly of wild-bred birds.

2012: A milestone year, with the project target of 40 pairs reached.  Across the monitoring area, 44 pairs were found. Unfortunately the wettest summer for a century severely suppressed productivity, with just 65 fledged young being recorded.

2013: A decline in the breeding population due to bad weather in 2012 - which affected productivity -  and no birds having been released in the previous year.

2014: A welcome increase in the population.

2015: A population of over 50 pairs, a number considered self-sustaining.

Gallery

Who to contact

Cath Jeffs
Project Manager
E-mail: cath.jeffs@rspb.org.uk

Partners

This was a partnership project involving the RSPB, Natural England, the National Trust and Paignton Zoo, with technical support from the Zoological Society of London.

Funding

The reintroduction project received funding from the Countdown 2010 Biodiversity Action Fund, SITA Trust, through the Landfill Communities Fund, and the BBC Wildlife Fund provided £5,000.

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