A Farming and Conservation Partnership Success Story: The Cirl Bunting

According to the State of Nature report released earlier this year 12 out of the 26 breeding farmland birds are red listed (the highest category of risk of further decline or even extinction). Since 1970 the number of farmland birds has declined by 54%. Although it must be mentioned that since the early 1990s, when conservation practices on farms began in earnest, the declines have slowed, the trajectory is still downward, so there remains a lot of work to do.

This post focuses on a real success story, showing what can be achieved when conservationists and farmers work together. It’s the story of the Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus) in Devon.


South Devon, specifically the South Hams, is one of my favourite parts of the country. I spent many summers down there in my childhood and it certainly made an impact on me.

The area is one of the final strongholds for the beautiful little bird that is the cirl bunting, with 54% of the national population to be found here. Around 42% can be found in other parts of Devon and 4% in Cornwall.

It’s a relative of the yellowhammer and part of the bunting family. It is recognisable and distinctive due to its slightly yellowish breast and head which also has black stripes spread across it.

In 1989 there were only 118 pairs of this little bird left in the UK. In 2016 the number stands at 1,078 pairs, having now passed the RSPB’s target of 1000 pairs. This is all thanks to a long standing partnership between the RSPB, Natural England and Devon farmers and landowners, who have all worked together in the last 25 years to boost numbers of this species, and others.

The crash in population originally took place in the 1960s and 1970s, like for many other farmland birds. This was principally due to changes in farming practices, especially the move from spring to autumn drilled cereals as well as the destruction of much unimproved grassland and removal of hedgerows. The cirl bunting managed to just about cling on in areas such as the South Hams which stuck to mixed farming practices, seemingly throughout the period.

Stubble field, New Hayward Farm. Credit: Simon Mortimer

In 1991 a conservation scheme began which paid Devon farmers and landowners to undertake practices that would boost the cirl bunting population. These included leaving winter stubbles, providing seed food for the winter months, creating grass margins around arable fields that would attract insects and spiders (summer food) and maintain hederows. When done on a wide scale, this has really worked and numbers have begun to recover. The scheme has also helped other birds that rely on a winter food source such as yellowhammer, skylarks and linnets.

It is a clue that we should be doing more of two things.

  1. Investing in more schemes that bring conservationists and farmers together to undertake targeted projects.
  2. We should be working on a landscape scale, following the suggestions of Sir John Lawton (More, Bigger, Better, Joined up).

Have a great weekend.



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