What we do
Image: Chris Gomersall
The cirl (pronounced sirl) bunting is a small finch-like bird that is a close relative of the yellowhammer.
Once widespread and locally common across much of southern England, cirl buntings are now rare and very range restricted and, until recently, only bred in south Devon where they are mostly confined to coastal and inland areas between Plymouth and Exeter.
A programme of RSPB research helped to explain and understand the causes of this decline.
Cirl buntings are birds of mixed farmland and the loss of sources of food (both winter and summer) and nesting sites was identified as the major reason for the cirl bunting’s dramatic decline.
During the winter, cirl buntings forage in weedy stubble fields, feeding on seeds and spilt grain. In the summer, they nest in hedges or scrub and forage in unimproved grassland full of invertebrates: grasshoppers are a particularly valuable food for chicks. As cirl buntings are very sedentary only moving up to 2 km between their breeding and wintering areas, it is vital that all these habitats are within close proximity to each other.
Cirl bunting habitat has become less common because of historical changes in farming practices. These changes have usually been as a direct result of government support for farmers to intensify management and the drive for the UK to produce cheap food.
Farms are also tending to become more specialised and the loss of mixed farming has been particularly detrimental to the cirl bunting population and range. In Devon, small traditionally managed coastal farms have persisted with the coastal environment making the switch to autumn grown crops more difficult.
The re-creation of these habitats is the key to reversing the fortunes of this colourful bird and the support of the farming community is vital if this is to be achieved.
The results from the 2009 national cirl bunting survey are currently being analysed to assess how stewardship agreements are continuing to affect the range and abundance of this important species.
We will continue to work with NE, farmers and other land managers to ensure Environmental Stewardship continues to deliver favourable management.
Of increasing concern is the threat from built development, a particular problem in the north and west of the range, where the population is concentrated on urban fringes of settlements such as Teignmouth and Dawlish. The project continues to work with Local Authorities and developers to ensure that the impacts of development are minimised and offset.
The recent acquisition of a piece of south Devon coastal land has been an exciting new chapter in the conservation efforts for the cirl bunting. Situated within the coastal strip between Teignmouth and Torquay, Labrador Bay is a mosaic of mixed coastal farmland, cliff and woodland with the potential of demonstrating optimum habitat conditions for cirl buntings.
This is not only advantageous for cirl buntings in bridging an important gap between populations to the north and south of the site, but the reserve could also assist other landowners in becoming an ideal demonstration site for cirl bunting habitat.
The project to re-establish cirl buntings on the Roseland Peninsula is ongoing; for more details, see the reintroduction project page.
The success of the project can be measured by the increase in population. In 1989, only 118 pairs could be located but this figure increased to over 550 pairs in 2002, almost 700 pairs in 2003 and over 860 pairs in 2009.
Research undertaken by the RSPB in 1999 showed a positive link between Countryside Stewardship agreements and the recovery of the cirl bunting population in Devon. This makes this the best example of an agri-environment scheme reversing the decline of a threatened species.
There are now over 200 cirl bunting Countryside Stewardship (CSS) or Environmental Stewardship (Higher Level Scheme) agreements, mostly in South Devon with a few in south Cornwall. These agreements include a variety of prescriptions including the creation of weedy stubbles, low intensity grassland, uncropped arable field margins, restoration of old orchards and sympathetically managed hedgerows.
These agreements directly cover around 50 per cent of the total cirl bunting population. A further 6 per cent of the population is covered by other agreements, eg. RSPB and local authority. These populations are protected during the course of the ten-year agreement. In addition, 90% of the population is within 1km of an agreement and 95 per cent are within 2 km.
The management options found to be the most beneficial for this species were the spring barley winter stubbles and wide grass margins of arable fields. As well as cirl buntings, other farmland wildlife such as skylark, yellowhammer, brown hare and arable plants are likely to be benefiting from the changes in management. Research is on going to assess the wider benefits to farmland biodiversity.
Agri-environment agreements usually last for 10 years, the challenge now is to ensure those agreements coming to the end of their life are renewed so that the cirl bunting population is secure.
Habitat of cirl bunting, Labrador Bay, Devon
Male cirl bunting feeding in stubbles
Cath Jeffs, Cirl Bunting Project Manager, with flower growers in Exminster
Cirl bunting bulletin - winter 2013
Latest news about cirl bunting projects
Date: 6 March 2014
Cirl bunting bulletin - autumn 2012
Date: 28 November 2012
Cirl bunting bulletin - summer 2011
Date: 30 August 2011
Cirl bunting advisory sheet (England)
What cirl buntings need and how they can be encouraged to your farmland.
Date: 18 March 2010
Cirl bunting bulletin - summer 2010
Date: 28 June 2010
Cath JeffsProject ManagerE-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Devon and Cornwall Farming Community