Making life better for a jewel of a bird

The Coast Path in Devon (photo by Hazel Strange)

The sea was a patchwork of ever-changing shades of blue and the sun created an intense shimmering where it shone on the many small waves. It was as though a thousand small jewels reflected the sun’s rays. Far out at sea, a light mist obscured the horizon and caused the sea and the sky to seemingly melt in to one another.

The path by the sea weaves its way along the coast here, sometimes at sea level and sometimes perilously high on rocky outcrops. Here and there we saw violets, thrift and a few early bluebells – more small jewels. It was hard walking especially in this unseasonably warm weather and we had to remind ourselves that, although it felt like summer, this really was only late March.

There is another jewel that decorates the coast in this part of South Devon, a small songbird called the Cirl Bunting. This is the only part of the UK where the bird is found and it has become something of a local icon. We had seen pictures of the bird in the village of East Prawle, where we left the car, and had previously searched for the bird but not seen it ourselves more than a handful of times. Today our luck had changed. On a hedge hear the sea we spotted a mixed flock of birds including Dunnocks and Chaffinches but there was another small brown bird that continually darted from the hedge to the ground and back again. Fixing it with my binoculars I confirmed that this was a female Cirl Bunting. During the walk, we saw another six of these birds, some females, some the brightly coloured male but all with the distinctive face bar pattern.

Male Cirl Bunting (from RSPB)

So why is there a fuss about this little bird? It’s found quite widely in continental Europe and it used to be found over all of southern England. Intensive farming, however, almost eliminated Cirl Buntings from the UK and even now it is confined to a small coastal strip of land between Exeter and Plymouth. In 1989 there were only 118 breeding pairs and the bird was destined to be extinct in this country.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) devised a plan to protect and encourage Cirl Buntings but for the plan to work they needed to have the support and cooperation of local farmers. The RSPB worked out that the decline in the population of Cirl Buntings had been caused by farming practices which took away the bird’s food supplies. In the winter, the birds forage in weedy stubble fields eating seeds and spilt grain. In the summer, they nest in hedges and scrub and forage in unimproved grassland full of invertebrates with grasshoppers being especially important for chicks. The breeding and wintering habitats must be close as the birds do not move more than about 2 km. Intensive farming, including winter ploughing, use of herbicides and grubbing out of hedges severely depleted the bird’s natural habitats. In order to provide these habitats, famers agreed to change some of their practices, leaving stubble over winter, leaving wide margins around fields, planting low intensity grassland and restoring hedges. These changes have been supported by environmental subsidies from the EU.

The programme has been a great success so far and by 2009 there were 862 breeding pairs as well as increases in other wildlife in the area. Confidence in the bird’s stability has increased to the extent that some chicks have been hand raised and set free in Cornwall to try to establish another colony of Cirl Buntings in the next county.

The Cirl Bunting Programme was based on simple ideas that took account of the life cycle of the bird and how that had been affected by changes in farming practice. It is wonderful to see the little birds doing so well and the programme is a perfect example of cooperation and conservation in practice.

In a previous post, I wrote about music written by John Spiers to celebrate the Red Kite conservation project.  Perhaps another “folkie” should write a tune celebrating Cirl Buntings?

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