Adult male Cirl bunting, Emberiza cirlus. RSPB Cirl Bunting Project. Devon, England. July

Cirl buntings

Cirl buntings were on the brink of UK extinction, but with support from people like you, we've increased the population by more than 600%. Cath Jeffs, cirl bunting project manager explains how...

There's no place like hedge

It's summer and you're perched in a lovely old hedge. It follows the undulating Devon landscape through a patchwork of farmland - a barley field full of cornfield flowers and insects, a flower-rich pasture with grazing cattle, a hay meadow buzzing with grasshoppers.

You feel safe because there’s plenty of shelter. The insects which your chicks demand constantly are super abundant. You know that in the winter, the field here will be stubbly and full of nourishing seeds to keep your whole family going till next spring. You’re a cirl bunting, and for you, this is as good as it gets.

I’ve been working with cirl buntings for almost 20 years now, and I feel an almost parental affection for these exotic-looking farmland birds, with their bold black and yellow face stripes.

I've got to know their needs really well. We all have – the rest of the RSPB's Cirl Bunting Project Team and I. We had to become experts at understanding what makes an ideal home for these charming farmland birds, because we came really close to losing them in the UK forever.

Cirl bunting in hedge

The fall of farmland birds

Cirl buntings were once a common and widespread farmland bird all over the south of England and up into Wales. But a survey in 1989 revealed a catastrophic decline in their numbers. There were just 118 pairs left, mainly in Devon. 

RSPB scientists investigated and found that the problem was a lack of food and nesting sites. Increased production and technological advances had changed the farmed landscape, and therefore the home of cirl buntings.

So many of the features these birds depend on were vanishing - the flower-rich meadows, the hedges and grassy field margins stuffed with insects and the fields of winter stubble rich in fallen seeds. If we were going to save cirl buntings, we had to find a way to get these features back into the countryside.

Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus, adult male perching on song post in Devon, England.

The Cirl Bunting Project

We began by identifying farms where cirl buntings still nested, and we talked to the farmers there about the special and rare birds they had living on their land.

The farmers were excited to know about them and keen to help. But of course, they still had to be able to run a profitable business and feed their own families. 

At this time, The Countryside Stewardship Scheme was just starting. It was a government project which paid farmers for doing things on their land which improved the natural environment. We were able to persuade the government to include a special cirl bunting option in this scheme.

If farmers sowed barley crops in the spring and then, after harvest, left them as weedy stubbles until the end of March, the government would pay them. It meant farmers could give over a small area of their farms to encourage wildlife, without suffering any income loss and still producing a crop.

More and more farmers began to work with us. We helped them fill in all the paperwork and farmer by farmer, convert Devon into a county of cirl bunting champions.

The number of birds began to rise, but they were struggling to move to new areas beyond Devon, so we needed to do more. 

Adult male Cirl bunting, Emberiza cirlus. RSPB Cirl Bunting Project. Devon, England. July

Reintroducing cirl buntings

In 2006, we began the first ever ‘perching bird’ reintroduction project in Europe, in partnership with Natural England, the National Trust, Paignton Zoo and the Zoological Society of London.

We took chicks from Devon, then hand-reared and released them in Cornwall. A year later, the first breeding cirl buntings in Cornwall for over a decade were confirmed. And now we have a population that continues to steadily grow, with 65 established in the reintroduction area. 

Cirl bunting numbers were improving now, but there was still not enough suitable habitat for them to really thrive. So we needed to do more.

Juvenile Cirl bunting at the Cirl bunting reintroduction project.

Labrador Bay

In 2008, we bought land in Labrador Bay, in Devon, to create the UK's first and only cirl bunting nature reserve. In this stunning coastal farm overlooking Lyme Bay, we set about giving cirl buntings the best possible home by carefully managing the habitat.

In just a few years, we've boosted the population here to 20 pairs. This is now a wonderful place for visitors to come and see cirl buntings for themselves. 

Thanks to our work with farmers, the reintroduction programme and our Labrador Bay nature reserve, cirl bunting numbers have risen from 118 to 862 pairs in 25 years. That's an astonishing 630 per cent increase.

And it's people like you who have made this possible. Right now, we're analysing the latest survey results, which should be even higher. Our target is 1,000 pairs.

A patch of gorse: habitat of Cirl bunting Emberiza cirlus. Labrador Bay, Devon, England.

How your membership helps

We were able to save cirl buntings from extinction in the UK with support from our members. Their membership donations made this work possible.

By joining the RSPB today, not only can you help us continue to save cirl buntings, but you'll be helping give a home to other threatened birds, bugs, plants, mammals and reptiles across the UK, and even overseas through our international conservation projects. 

Please join the RSPB today, and help us give nature a home. 

 Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus), adult male feeding in stubble left over winter as a food source at Labrador Bay RSPB reserve, Devon, England.