Print page

The Cirl Bunting Project

Male cirl bunting perched on branch in winter

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.

Project objectives

  • To offer advice and support to landowners within the birds' current range and to promote sympathetic land management for the cirl bunting
  • To develop a network of sympathetically managed sites throughout the cirl buntings current range. This is usually through government agri-environment schemes such as Countryside Stewardship and now Environmental Stewardship (Higher Level Scheme)
  • To work with Natural England, Local Authorities and developers to ensure that the impacts of development are minimised and offset
  • Establish a geographically separate population (see re-introduction page).

Key dates so far

  • RSPB research into the birds ecology and reasons behind the decline started in 1988
  • 1989 population: 118 pairs mainly restricted to Devon
  • In the early 1990s the reasons behind the decline become clearer
  • Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) Defra-funded agri-environment scheme available from 1991
  • Cirl bunting special project (spring barley left as winter stubble) available from 1992 as a management option within CSS
  • RSPB project officer employed in 1993 to work with farmers. Joint funded by English Nature since 1995 as part of their Species Recovery Programme and as part of Action for Birds in England (AfBiE)
  • The cirl bunting population increased by 146 per cent on land within CSS between 1992 and 2003
  • In 1999/2000 94 per cent of cirl bunting farmers surveyed were pleased that they had joined CSS
  • By 2003, 50 per cent of the cirl bunting population bred on land within CSS agreements and 95% of the population was within 2km of agreements
  • In 2003 cirl bunting population recorded as near to 700 pairs (over 50 per cent increase since the last survey in 1998)
  • 2005 Environmental Stewardship available
  • The 2009 survey estimated the cirl bunting population to be 862 pairs, a fantastic increase of 24% since 2003.

Work planned or underway

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.



Cirl bunting bulletin - winter 2013

Cirl bunting bulletin - winter 2013

917Kb, PDF

Latest news about cirl bunting projects

Date: 6 March 2014


Cirl bunting bulletin - autumn 2012

Cirl bunting bulletin - autumn 2012

834Kb, PDF

Latest news about cirl bunting projects

Date: 28 November 2012


Cirl bunting bulletin - summer 2011

Cirl bunting bulletin - summer 2011

1.07Mb, PDF

Latest news about cirl bunting projects

Date: 30 August 2011


Cirl bunting advisory sheet (England)

Cirl bunting advisory sheet (England)

272Kb, PDF

What cirl buntings need and how they can be encouraged to your farmland.

Date: 18 March 2010


Cirl bunting bulletin - summer 2010

Cirl bunting bulletin - summer 2010

549Kb, PDF

Latest news about cirl bunting projects

Date: 28 June 2010


Who to contact

Cath Jeffs
Project Manager


Natural England

Devon and Cornwall Farming Community


The project is funded by a £76,250 grant over three years from SITA Trust, through the Landfill Communities Fund
Landfill Communities FundSITA Trust