The Cirl Bunting is an attractive songbird once found throughout the southern half of the UK. Its numbers declined precipitously in the second half of the 20th century following changes in farming practice and, by the late 1980s, it was confined to coastal farmland in south Devon and might have become nationally extinct. The RSPB recognised the problem and worked with farmers to support the bird resulting in a dramatic increase in its numbers. In a recent expansion of its range the bird has established itself in East Devon at Stantyway Farm near Otterton having been absent for more than 30 years. By Philip Strange
The Cirl Bunting was first reported in the UK by Montagu in the winter of 1800 near Kingsbridge in south Devon. It is roughly sparrow-sized and the male, in particular, is very distinctive with its black and yellow striped head and olive-green breast band. The bird gradually spread across the southern half of the UK, its numbers peaking in the early years of the 20th century. Since then it has declined and by the late 1980s only 118 pairs remained, confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.
With the Cirl Bunting facing national extinction, the RSPB identified changes in farming practice linked to agricultural intensification as responsible for the precipitous decline. In the winter, the bird forages for insects and spilt grain in weedy stubble fields. In the summer, it nests in hedges or scrub and forages on unimproved grassland rich in invertebrates with grasshoppers being important for chicks. With agricultural intensification, there was a shift from spring-sown cereals to autumn sowing so that far fewer arable fields were left as winter stubble; grubbing out of hedges took away nest sites and loss of the hay meadows and increased use of pesticides reduced invertebrate numbers and summer food for the bird.
Once the cause of the decline had been identified, the RSPB worked with farmers in south Devon to support the birds by reinstating some traditional agricultural practices, supported by government agrienvironment schemes. The effect was spectacular and by 2016, numbers of Cirl Buntings had increased to over 1000 pairs. Most of the increase occurred in the bird’s core range but there was some spread along the coast and inland where habitat was suitable. This was a major conservation success, also benefitting other species.
The bird has a reputation for being sedentary and it had been assumed that the estuary of the river Exe would be a barrier to further eastwards expansion of its range. So, it was a surprise when, around the end of 2010, a single Cirl Bunting was seen at Stantyway Farm near Otterton in East Devon followed by several more sightings early in 2011. Since then, the numbers at Stantyway have increased suggesting that the local conditions suit the birds and from 2015 it was clear that a breeding population existed.
Stantyway Farm is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and when the tenant, Mr Williams, retired in 2014, the farm was taken back into Clinton’s own Farm Partnership. Clinton Devon Estates were keen to support Cirl Buntings and other species on their arable farm at Stantyway so they took advice from the RSPB and applied for agrienvironment support. This was awarded in 2016 and supports planting hedges to provide more nest sites, leaving wildlife margins around fields to provide invertebrates as summer food, and planting spring cereal crops that are harvested in the autumn leaving weedy winter stubbles with seed as food. These are all activities shown to be critical in supporting these birds in south Devon. The farm was also put into organic conversion in 2016; organic farming by its nature supports wildlife and increases invertebrates. Cirl Bunting numbers at Stantyway gradually increased across this time.
In 2017, Clinton Estates advertised for a new tenant farmer at Stantyway and Sam Walker was appointed. Although the farm is still mainly arable, Sam keeps 52 cows whose calves are raised and sold on to beef finishers. About a third of the land is now devoted to grass for silage production for winter animal feed. Sam has, however, embraced the existing philosophy of the farm in supporting wildlife: he has maintained the organic status and intends to apply for further agrienvironment support when the current scheme runs out in 2021.
I wanted to see the farm for myself so, on a mild early April day, I went to Stantyway. I left the car on the rough ground across from Stantyway Farmhouse and stood for a few moments enjoying the sunshine. The air was filled with the endlessly inventive song of the skylark and occasionally a buzzard mewed as it circled lazily overhead. Sometimes a low buzz cut through all of this and when I looked, I realised this was from all the insects about.
I walked away from the farm along the gentle downhill slope of Stantyway Road with views developing over rolling East Devon countryside on one side and to the hazy mid-blue sea on the other. The lane descended between wide grassy verges backed by luxuriant hedges. Spring flowers grew through the thick grass including stitchwort, celandine, dandelions, violets and white dead nettle. The dominant flowering plant was, however, alexanders, with its fleshy green stems, copious shiny dark green foliage and pale mop head flowers. This was proving very popular with many kinds of fly and a selection of solitary mining bees, some collecting large lumps of white pollen on their back legs.
My walk included a long section of the coast path skirting the edge of Stantyway fields. Thick scrubby hedges, mainly flowering blackthorn, lined the cliff edge along with more alexanders. The occasional hedge break afforded spectacular views along the red cliffs of the Jurassic Coast towards Ladram bay with its crumbling stacks, past the white elegance of Sidmouth and finishing in the chalk of Beer Head. Again, there were many solitary mining bees taking advantage of the flowers. I did not see any Cirl Buntings on my walk but, on two occasions I heard their distinctive, rattling, metallic trill telling me the birds were about.
It’s a beautiful place made all the better by glorious early April weather and I was surprised to see so many insects along the paths. Perhaps this reflects the methods used at Stantyway, showing that productive farming and wildlife can coexist and prosper. Around the farm, each field gate has an information board giving the crop and some other useful information. An Honesty Café has been installed near the farmhouse providing continuous hot water for tea or coffee and homemade cakes that I can strongly recommend. All of this suggests an outward looking, open approach to farming. When I met Sam Walker, the farmer, he explained that, in addition to the provisions of the agrienvironment scheme, he has put skylark plots in cereal fields, created wild bird seed corridors and put up swift boxes to support wildlife. I came away feeling that at Stantyway, Cirl Buntings were getting the best support they could. His methods have already benefitted other farmland birds with numbers of skylarks and reed buntings doubling over the past year and in a further twist to the Cirl Bunting story, some of the birds have now been seen to the east of Sidmouth.
I should like to thank Sam Walker, Doug and Joan Cullen, Kate Ponting and David White for generous help in preparing this article.
Philip Strange is Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Reading. He writes about science and about nature with a particular focus on how science fits in to society. His work may be read at http://philipstrange.wordpress.com/