|A Cirl Bunting (RSPB image)|
Historically, Cirl (pronounced “Sirl”) buntings were not only present in many parts of southern Britain, but were actually quite common in a number of places. I have recently been looking through an old Winchester College bird club book, which describes them in 1954 as “several near Micheldever, whilst pairs can also be found breeding around the villages of Morstead, Twyford and Brambridge”.
But shortly after this, it soon started to go badly wrong for the “Village Bunting” as the Cirl was often called, because there were very few records received following this account. Before long they were not only lost from Hampshire, but also from most of their former range, so that by the late 1980s they could only be found as a small and vulnerable population of 118 pairs in South Devon.
So, step up the RSPB who in 1988 began to research Cirl bunting ecology and the reasons behind the decline. By the early 1990s and with a much better understanding of what made a Cirl Bunting tick, they started to target the new Government Stewardship scheme at halting the decline of this lovely little bird. They also created a Cirl bunting special project within the scheme, which in particular encouraged farmers to leave spring barley “weedy” stubbles over-winter, which was now known to be really important to this birds ability to over-winter successfully.
But the real breakthrough in my opinion, came when in about 1993 the RSPB employed Cath Jeffs as the Cirl bunting project officer, with the specific remit to work alongside farmers and encourage and advise them on how to manage for this great little bird. A couple of years later funding also came into the project from English Nature (the old name for Natural England). It was around this time that Cath invited me down to speak to farmers and I have been keenly interested in the project ever since.
What a difference Caths arrival made! It clearly demonstrated that good, practical advice, especially when coupled with bucket loads of enthusiasm, can deliver big time! Between 1992 and 2003, the Cirl bunting population increased by 146 per cent on land that was within the targeted Stewardship scheme! By 2009, another survey estimated the Cirl bunting population to be 862 pairs, another fantastic increase of 24% since 2003.
Remember that all of this success has been delivered by farmers. It is they who have listened to the practical advice, understood the plight of this little bunting and acted together on a landscape scale, by implementing the habitats required, using the options available in the Stewardship scheme. So don’t tell me that farmers are too busy to care or are disinterested in delivering conservation on their farms – this project, working alongside farmers, blows that myth (if it ever existed) right out of the water.
On the strength of this Devon project, the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project - a partnership project between the RSPB, Natural England (NE), the National Trust and Paignton Zoo, with assistance from the Zoological Society of London – began in 2006. The aim of this project was to re-establish a self-sustaining population of Cirl buntings on the Roseland Peninsula in south Cornwall, by taking chicks (under license from NE) from nests in healthy populations in south Devon, and translocating them to the site in south Cornwall.
Has this re-introduction project worked? Well, “yes” in a word it has! Cath has just sent me an up-date – so have a look for yourselves by going to this link: