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.
Cirl buntings were once widespread and common across much of southern England, but in recent years, they have become rare and only found in south Devon, mostly confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.
We ran a programme of research to try to understand this decline. We found that the loss of food sources and nesting sites had caused this 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 (they only move up to 2 km between their breeding and wintering areas), it is vital that all these habitats are close to each other.
Changes in agriculture during the 20th century have made farms more productive, but these changes have meant cirl buntings have struggled to find food and nesting sites.
Technological advances such as autumn-sown cereals replacing spring-sown varieties, more efficient machinery resulting in less spilt grain, increased fertiliser and pesticide use and hedge removal to create larger fields have all had an impact.
A widespread trend towards specialised farms has seen farms in the west of the country converting to mainly grass and farms in the east growing arable crops.
This has resulted in a reduction of mixed farms, which makes life very difficult for a species like the cirl bunting which needs both grass and arable habitats close to each other.
In Devon, small traditionally-managed coastal farms have persisted, the exposed coastal environment making spring crops a more viable option than winter cropping. This has made this area more appealing to cirl buntings.
A mixed farming environment that includes winter stubbles is the key to helping this colourful bird and the support of the farming community is vital if cirl buntings are to become more secure in the UK.
There has been an astonishing 630 per cent increase in the cirl bunting population since the RSPB Cirl Bunting Project began.
The Cirl Bunting Project is widely recognised as a model of how farmers can work in a way that is productive for them but which also helps wildlife. This is backed up by RSPB science.
In 2009, 54 per cent of the cirl bunting population was recorded on land managed through an agri-environment scheme (the Countryside Stewardship Scheme or Higher Level Stewardship), and 95 per cent of the cirl bunting population is within 2 km of land managed through agri-environment agreements.
Over the last 10 years the project has directly influenced management of over 10,000 hectares of land.
There is now a self-sustaining reintroduced population in Cornwall.
A wide variety of other threatened species are benefiting from the management that is happening for cirl buntings – these include other seed-eating birds such as linnets and skylarks, plus brown hares, rare arable plants, greater and lesser horseshoe bats, grey long-eared bats and flowering plants in species-rich grasslands.
To access some of the peer-reviewed research and other papers written about cirl buntings (including population recovery, habitat use, the role of agri-environment and translocation), please see our publications page.
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