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

Cirl bunting

The cirl bunting is the UK’s rarest resident farmland bird with a population of only 1000 pairs.

Cirl buntings in the UK

The UK Population is found mainly in south Devon, between Exeter and Plymouth.

However, through intensive conservation action they have naturally spread to East Devon whilst a separate population has been reintroduced to the Roseland Peninsula in south Cornwall.

Species status

  • Phase of recovery: Recovery, heading to self-sustaining 
  • Red list Bird of Conservation Concern 
  • Section 41 species  

Agricultural changes

In the 1930s, cirl buntings were widespread in southern England and were known as the 'village bunting'. Numbers crashed dramatically during the 20th century, and by 1989 there were only about 120 pairs left in the UK, most of these in south Devon.

RSPB research discovered that changes in land management had reduced the food available to the buntings – especially in winter – and the number of suitable nest sites.

  • Changing from spring to autumn sown cereals meant there were fewer winter food sources.
  • The decline of stooking (the gathering of cut wheat or straw into bundles, ready to be taken to the farmyard), the loss of threshing yards, and the increased use of pesticides resulted in fewer weedy stubbles.
  • Using more pesticides and fertilisers on crops and grassland meant there were fewer insects – especially grasshoppers – for the young birds to eat in summer.
  • Removing hedges and bushes meant there were fewer suitable places for nesting.
  • Traditional mixed farms have virtually disappeared and areas have become specialised so that there is mostly grassland in the west and arable land in the east.

Cirl buntings don’t travel far, usually moving no more than two kilometres between their breeding and wintering areas. This lack of movement may be the key to why cirl buntings were almost lost from the UK. Losing just one habitat component from an area, such as winter food, makes it unsuitable for these birds and they are likely to be lost. Once cirl buntings are lost from an area, they are unlikely to recolonise unless there are breeding birds within about two kilometres and numbers are increasing. 

Cirl bunting in hedge

Making progress

These findings were used to develop specific options for cirl buntings within the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

A cirl bunting project officer has worked with landowners since 1993 to provide cirl buntings with good quality habitat through the promotion of options within Agri-environment schemes. Suitable habitat for the birds has been created through project officer advice and government grants to hundreds of land managers, enabling them to farm in a wildlife friendly way.

A special management prescription for the cirl bunting, for which the RSPB lobbied hard, has encouraged many landowners to provide the weedy stubbles which are vital for the birds’ winter survival. Thanks to this work, the cirl bunting population has increased dramatically to around 1000 pairs.

Research published in 2008 showed that cirl buntings increased by 146 per cent on farms that were part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) compared with only 56 per cent on areas that were not. This gives a clear indication that the options the farmers have adopted are benefiting cirl buntings and have contributed to the recovery of this species.

Other benefits:

  • Farmland managed for cirl buntings also supports many other important species, such as skylarks, linnets and yellowhammers.
  • Stubbles are a vital winter food source for many of our farmland birds and small mammals, and provide habitat for rare arable plants.
  • Grazing pastures managed for cirls support many insects such as crickets and butterflies.
  • Thick hedges where cirl buntings nest are a wonderful habitat for many different species, and barn owls use rough grassland around fields. 
  • Brown hares also benefit from spring cropping.

Although the work of protecting the birds in South Devon went well, it was felt that with the entire population only being in one small area made it very vulnerable. One hard winter here could spell disaster. So the RSPB, together with other conservation partners, decided to also reintroduce the birds to the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall.

Beginning in 2006, over a period of six years and under strict license, baby birds were moved from areas in which they were thriving in Devon, expertly hand reared, and released in Cornwall. There is now an established breeding population of cirl buntings in south Cornwall too, an important safeguard to the bird’s future. 

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

The future?

The Project will be reassessed during 2017 to plan the next steps. 

However, the species is now much more secure than in was 25 years ago and the Cirl Bunting Project is a great example of how conservationists, farmers and government can work together to transform the status of a declining species.

Birds that rely on small areas of habitat are very susceptible to any loss or changes. Away from the coast, cirl buntings often breed around the edges of settlements, inhabiting land between housing and farmland. This is prime development land, which can result in the loss of habitat. If there is nowhere for the cirl buntings to go, they are lost.

The RSPB continues to work with farmers and local communities to help the cirl bunting population to grow. Its future looks more secure than it did 25 years ago, but there are still big challenges to be met. We will be working with Local Authorities and developers to ensure that important areas are not developed, and that any impacts on cirl buntings are minimised and compensated for.

To secure a long-term future for cirl buntings, their range needs to be maintained and expanded further. This will only be achieved through further and more wide ranging changes in agricultural policy to encourage farming that supports both farmers and wildlife. 

Acknowledgements 

Thank you to all the farmers and volunteers who have been involved with the project; without the support of farmers, cirl buntings could have been lost from the UK. Many people and organisations both NGO and government have supported the project over the years and it is testament to all these efforts that the recovery has been successful. Cirl bunting recovery work was part of Action for Birds in England, a conservation partnership between Natural England and the RSPB.