RSPB Cirl Bunting Project, Devon

The story so far

More than a thousand little voices sang out in fields across Devon and Cornwall in 2016. It’s the sound of success – cirl buntings are coming back.

25 years' work

After 25 years of dedicated work, in summer 2016 we got the fantastic news that we’ve reached our target of 1,000 pairs of cirl buntings in the UK. It’s a very special moment for the south-west of England, the home of this charming little bird.

Eighty years ago, you might have encountered cirl buntings across southern England. By 1989, only 118 pairs were left and their cheerful song was nearly silenced completely.

After a pioneering study to discover the causes of the decline and a lot of hard work, this rare bird is on its way back. The wings of this success carry hope for the future of farmland birds all across the UK.

Cirl Bunting, Emberiza cirlus, adult male feeding in straw, on a Devon farm.

We've done it together

We've done it together

The cirl bunting story is special because it’s the result of a fantastic partnership between nature conservation groups such as the RSPB, and the farmers who farm the fields that the buntings call home. Project Manager Cath Jeffs explains more.

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Project Manager, Cath Jeffs

Meet the farmer

Jon Andrews' family has farmed in south Devon for more than a century.

He decided to act to help cirl buntings because he was concerned by the loss of wildlife from farms in his area.

Jon said: "We joined the Cirl Bunting Project in 2000, through the RSPB, and what was the original Countryside Stewardship Scheme. We put in six-metre grass margins around all of our arable fields, we planted wild bird seed mixtures, and we moved away from autumn cultivation to spring cultivation, leaving stubbles over the winter for feeding birds such as the cirl bunting.

"My path through the scheme was greatly enhanced and helped by the RSPB. They gave me endless help in form filling and helping me adapt my farming practices towards nature-friendly farming.

"The Countryside Stewardship Scheme which we entered was government-run, so there were payments for us to carry out such work.

"The policy came through Europe. I hope Brexit won’t have an effect. The subject at hand is hugely important. We are in danger of losing species, which is an irreversible trend if we don’t do something about it now.

"I really enjoy walking around our farm. We not only hear the song of the cirl bunting through the measures that we have adopted, we help other species also. So, for instance, our wild bird seed mixtures encourage butterflies, native bees and other pollinating insects.

"Whatever we do to help one species, a very important point is that we also help a whole host of other species."

John Andrews

Meet the field worker

When the Cirl Bunting Project started 25 years ago, Dr Andy Evans was a young field biologist who spent three years studying these birds in Devon.

In 2016, he returned to see how they were getting on and reported back from his former study area.

He said: "I am amazed at how many cirl buntings are around – in places I never imagined they would ever be when I last went 'bunting hunting' in 1989.

"It’s just brilliant to be back, to see the habitat by and large unchanged – or changed for the better – and the cirl bunting population in apparent good health.

"A stubble field and some grasshoppers – not much to ask for, is it? It's incredible to think that rapid and comprehensive agricultural intensification which took place in the second half of the 20th century deprived cirl buntings of these two essential needs, driving them to the brink of extinction in the UK.

"It’s amazing to know that the farmers of south Devon and now Cornwall, working with the RSPB, have cared enough to ensure cirl buntings have an ample supply of these simple bare necessities, and have given the species a much more secure future. 

"I first came across these special little birds some 28 years ago. It’s been an absolute pleasure to get reacquainted with them."  

Andy is now the Head of the RSPB’s Nature Recovery Team.

Dr Andy Evans

We won't stop now

It’s wonderful news that we’ve reached this milestone, but the work doesn’t stop here. We need to make sure that future cirl bunting families will have plenty of new places where they can live and breed.

The role of farmers is crucial, so the Government must find new approaches to ensure that farmers who want to do the right thing for nature have the financial support they need – this story shows that it really does work.

But it’s not just cirl buntings that need more homes – people do too. Unfortunately for the birds, developers often want the same places for new housing. It’s vital that creative ways are found to make space for both people and nature; for example, developers paying for new habitats if existing ones are lost.

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

Fighting for farmland birds' future

The 2016 State of Nature report revealed the shocking loss of farmland wildlife – it showed farmland birds had declined by an appalling 54 per cent since 1970, and for some species the losses continue.

On a more hopeful note, the report also said "well-planned conservation projects can turn around the fortunes of wildlife".

This happens when governments, non-governmental organisations, businesses, communities and individuals work together to bring nature back. It can be done – the cirl bunting story proves it.

The RSPB is working to help farmland wildlife.  At Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire we're developing new farming techniques which help both farmers and wildlife, while also making a profit.

Last winter, 723 yellowhammers, close relatives of cirl buntings, were counted there. Fifteen years ago, there were just two. Hope Farm shows that UK farms can be productive, profitable – and filled with wildlife.

Orchids growing in the corner of a field, Labrador Bay