CORNWALL'S WILDLIFE: THE RETURN OF THE CIRL
PUBLISHED: 15:13 21 December 2015 | UPDATED: 12:55 30 August 2017
A wildlife project on Cornwall's Roseland Peninsula has had huge success in bringing back the cirl bunting
David Chapman looks at a unique project re-introducing wildlife into Cornwall
Over the last few years cirl (pronounced sirl’) buntings have been reintroduced to the Roseland Peninsula and thanks to careful planning things have gone extraordinarily well.
The cirl bunting was once a widespread bird in England. At the beginning of the 20th century this small farmland bird could be found all across southern England as far north as the Midlands and its population was measured in the thousands. By 1989 its population had crashed to about 120 pairs all of which were found in south Devon with a handful left in Cornwall and Somerset. By the mid 1990s its range was restricted entirely to south Devon.
The catastrophic decline of this species was mirrored by so many other farmland species but none of the others were quite so close to extinction in the UK when in 1988 the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) began to research the plight of the cirl bunting, trying to look into its specific habitat requirements in an effort to save this beautiful bird.
The intensification of farming had a serious impact on the populations of farmland birds. Problems included the grubbing out of hedges; the increased use of chemicals; the mono-cultural approach, where vast fields were planted with single crops and the loss of over-wintered stubble due to the switch from spring to autumn cropping, are just some of the factors affecting farmland species.
The decline of the cirl bunting was more dramatic than for many other farmland species and this might be partly due to it having much more particular needs from its environment. This is a bird which needs good quality, dense hedgerows in which to nest. In the summer time it looks for unimproved grassland where it can find find insects to feed to its young, whilst in the winter it favours stubble fields where it eats the small seeds of flowers and grasses.
Research also showed that cirl buntings are extremely sedentary so it is vital that all of these habitats are found within close proximity of their territories, which means mixed farms with small fields and substantial hedgerows are essential.
To help their recovery in Devon, farmers in areas around the South Hams were offered government grants (originally called Countryside Stewardship, now Environmental Stewardship) and advice to help them manage their land in a targeted way to assist cirl buntings.
The birds responded well to the assistance and their population began to rise. However, being sedentary, it was feared that the spread of this isolated population might never get beyond the conurbations of Plymouth and Exeter without further assistance.
So in 2004 a trial began to see if it might be possible to take chicks from the nests of cirl buntings, hand rear them and then release them successfully. All of this was done in Devon and the trial proved to be a success. A pair was targeted once in the season and the whole brood was taken which encouraged the adults to re-lay and go on to have another brood. The chicks which were hand reared were released back into the wild and seemed to behave naturally so a reintroduction was planned.
Stuart Croft, the RSPB project officer for the reintroduction, told me: The reintroduction of a passerine (small perching bird) is unique in Europe where it has never been attempted before.’
The reasons for choosing the Roseland as the site for the reintroduction included, a relatively recent history of cirl buntings on the Roseland; the pretty good habitat already present and a good population of insects suitable for the birds to feed their young were all key factors’.
For six successive years, 75 chicks were taken under licence from nest sites in Devon and were hand reared by aviculturalists in Cornwall. Initially they were fed every two hours from 6am to midnight every day. At thirteen days old, when they usually fledge, they were transferred from their brooders to larger cages. Then after several more days they were taken to outdoor aviaries where they could become accustomed to their new homes in safety. After a few more days their aviary doors were opened to allow them to come and go as they pleased.
All the birds released in this way are ringed in a unique way so their movements and behaviour can be recorded.
One of Stuart’s jobs is to watch and record their behaviour. Many interesting facts have been observed which has furthered our understanding of cirl bunting behaviour.
Cirl buntings tend to live their entire lives within 2 m of the nest in which they were born; they are prone to polygamy if there are excess females in the population, so male cirl buntings relish the opportunity to mate with two, or even three, females and it is the females who do all of the incubation and most of the work in feeding the young.
Cirl buntings also have a high mortality in their first autumn/winter and typically they live to be only two or three years old. Five years is the record lifespan so far recorded on the Roseland.
I asked Stuart how well the reintroduction had gone and how the Cornish population of cirl buntings is progressing. He told me “The first successful breeding took place in 2007 and by 2012 there were 44 pairs nesting. 2012 was a disastrous summer with really poor weather and this had an adverse impact on the birds.
However, after two good summers, the population has bounced back and it is fantastic to report that this year we have recorded more than 50 pairs.” With this number of pairs the project has met its criterion for success.
Stuart told me that he was delighted by the success of the reintroduction and with the support he has received from local farmers.
The success of this project is a great example of team work – where various individuals and organisations have worked so well collaboratively, particularly the local farming community who have been brilliant by allowing us access to monitor the cirls on their land and for adopting the agri-environment schemes that are so crucial to the long-term success for the cirls,’ he says.
To know that this attractive little bird is once again established in the Cornish countryside is such great news. In Devon the population has increased from 120 pairs in 1989 to a wonderful 860 pairs just 20 years later.
One day it is hoped that Cornish cirl buntings will meet up with their Devon counterparts to make one large colony which will make their existence in the UK a little more secure.
The cirl bunting reintroduction, which began in 2006, is a partnership between the RSPB, National England, the National Trust, Paignton Zoo and the Zoological Society of London. Also vital during the time of the reintroduction and into the future is the support of the farming community in Devon and Cornwall.