Reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus, perched on top of reed mace, Hertfordshire

Reed bunting

The reed bunting is found in a wide range of farmland types, but is rare in upland areas.

Reed buntings in brief

The UK population of reed buntings fell by 31 per cent between 1970 and 2007. This decline has probably been caused by the reduction of damp habitats and food sources on farmland. There has been a partial recovery over the last 15 years. 

Key points

  • Boost insect food by maintaining wet habitats, using low-input crop options or creating buffer strips.
  • Provide seed food through the winter with wild bird seed mixtures or over-wintered stubble, or by allowing some grass to set seed.
  • Careful desiccation of oilseed rape crops (ensuring that spray drift does not damage the adjacent field margin habitats) is preferable to swathing to help late nesting buntings.

What this species needs

Insects to feed to chicks in the spring and summer 

Reed bunting chicks are fed almost exclusively on insects and spiders until they fledge. 

Lots of seeds throughout the year 

Adults eat a variety of insects and seeds. They feed mainly in grasslands which are not grazed or cut in the spring, such as arable field margins and hay meadows. They also find seed on cropped land, such as winter stubbles and weeds in the crop margin. They can find food in wet areas, including boggy field corners and grassy fringes of ponds and wet ditches.

Safe nesting cover 

Reed buntings nest in a variety of farmland habitats including ditch edges, crops and set-aside. They occasionally nest in hedges. Leaving field margins and ditch banks uncut and spraying, rather than swathing, oilseed rape crops may save nests.   

Reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus, male

How to help

On arable land

  • Create grass margins around arable fields for nesting habitat. Include species such as cocksfoot in the seed mix to create tussocks. After the margins are established, cut only in the autumn once every three years. Avoid cutting all margins in the same year. Select margins that are adjacent to wet ditches or other watercourses. 
  • 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 reed 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. 
  • Wild bird cover crops can also provide vital seed food through the winter. Kale, oilseed rape and quinoa are particularly beneficial to reed buntings.
  • Desiccating oil-seed rape crops by spraying rather than swathing will keep the nesting habitat undisturbed until harvesting. Be careful to prevent spray drift when desiccating oilseed rape as the high boom can present a particularly high risk to field margins and hedges. 

On grassland

  • Introduce arable fodder crops or small plots of wild bird cover to provide a seed-rich habitat in pastoral areas. Maize is probably not of value to reed buntings unless it is undersown with a seed-bearing crop. 
  • Retain any unimproved wet meadows on the farm. These are important areas for a wide range of farmland wildlife including reed buntings, and can attract agri-environment scheme funding. 

Maintain wet areas

  • Maintain ponds with tall, grassy fringe vegetation. This will provide a habitat for feeding and nesting. 
  • Cut river, stream and ditch banks after mid-August on a two or three-year rotation to provide some nesting habitat every year. 
  • Retain wet field corners. Delay cutting until September to provide nesting cover.
Male Reed bunting singing on hawthorn