Corn Bunting Recovery Project, Cornwall

Corn bunting conservation

The corn bunting is a large, heavy-looking brown bunting with a particularly thick bill, generally found on open arable and mixed farmland.

Corn buntings in brief

The UK population of corn buntings fell by 89 per cent between 1970 and 2003. This is mainly because fewer seed and insect food sources are available to them on farmland. 

Also, because corn buntings are a late nesting species, their nests can be destroyed during harvesting or cutting.

Key points

  • Ensure the farm provides nesting habitat, summer food and winter food
  • Boost insect food using buffer strips, conservation headlands or other low-input crop options
  • Provide seed food, especially cereal grain, through the winter with over-wintered stubbles or seed-rich wild bird cover crops

What this species needs

A nesting habitat which remains available until the late summer    

Corn buntings nest on the ground in cereal fields, set-aside, grass field margins or unimproved grassland. They start nesting late in the spring, usually June or July, and can have flightless chicks in August.

Lots of seeds throughout the year

Adults feed mainly on seeds, especially cereal grain. Places where they can find seeds include rotational set-aside, harvested root crops, winter stubbles, newly-sown crops, weeds in the crop margins, areas of spilt grain or places where cereals are fed to outdoor cattle. They are becoming extinct in some pastoral areas of the UK.

Insects and spiders to feed to chicks in the spring and summer  

Corn buntings take insects from crops, set-aside, grassland and field margins to feed their chicks. Breeding success relates directly to the availability of insect food

How to help

On arable land

  • Only use pesticides when the infestation exceeds the economic threshold. Try to avoid using broad-spectrum insecticides after 15 March. These remove beneficial insects and spiders which move into the crops in the spring. The loss of this food source is particularly damaging to corn buntings. 
  • Adopt conservation headlands. Avoid spraying the outer six metres of cereal fields with insecticides or herbicides targeted at broad-leaved weeds. This enables beneficial insects and chick food for corn buntings to survive. You can get agronomic advice from the Game Conservancy Trust. 
  • Spray and cultivate stubbles as late as possible. This provides important winter feeding habitat. Seed-rich wild bird cover crops are very important on farms where overwinter stubbles are not a viable option. Cereals are an essential component of wild bird cover crops in areas with corn buntings.
  • Create grass margins around arable fields to increase food availability close to the nesting habitat. Include species such as cocksfoot in the seed mix to create a tussocky sward. After the margins are established, cut in the autumn only once every three years. Avoid cutting all margins in the same year. Corn buntings are more likely to use margins that have no boundary feature or just a post and wire fence. 
  • Use beetle banks in fields greater than 0.2 square kilometres to provide nesting cover for corn buntings and over-wintering habitat for beneficial insects. Beetle banks are two metre grass strips through the middle of arable fields. Such fields can be managed as one unit, as the headland is still cropped. 

On grassland

  • Introduce arable fodder crops or create small plots of wild bird cover to provide a seed-rich habitat in pastoral areas. Maize is probably not of value to corn buntings unless it is undersown with a seed-bearing crop. Undersown cereal crops will provide seed food through the winter. The lack of cultivation in the autumn as well as restrictions on herbicide use will produce an abundant supply of insects. 
  • Fence off margins of up to six metres around improved grassland and leave these unfertilised, uncut and ungrazed. Graze or cut in September every two to three years. Select margins which are adjacent to short thick hedges or post and wire fences.
Corn Bunting Recovery Project. Cornwall, England