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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 19:38 GMT
Celebration as rare bird thrives
Courtesy of Chris Gomersall and rspb-images
The cirl bunting needs plenty of insects to survive
One of the UK's rarest birds has come back from the brink of extinction, according to a new survey.

The population of cirl buntings has increased six-fold over the past 14 years, from 118 pairs to nearly 700.

Conservationists say the bird was saved thanks to a scheme in which farmers are paid to maintain their land in a "cirl bunting friendly way".

The scheme was organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with funding from government bodies.

Seeds and insects

The cirl bunting, a relative of the more familiar yellowhammer, is confined to south Devon - but in the past it ranged widely across southern Britain.

Cirl buntings rely on very particular conditions to survive. In the summer they require a large supply of insects, especially grasshoppers, to feed their chicks; while in the winter they need a rich source of seeds.

Traditionally insects were plentiful in hay fields, and seeds could easily be found after the harvest.

But in recent years farming practices have taken an unfortunate turn for cirl buntings.

The use of inorganic fertiliser has meant grasslands now support far fewer insects, and fields are ploughed almost immediately after harvest - so seeds do not hang around for long.

Without action the cirl bunting would probably have been lost from Britain by now
Ben Bradshaw, Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries
"The cirl bunting is one of our most attractive birds, but it's also one of our fussiest," said Cath Jeffs, the RSPB's Exeter-based Cirl Bunting Project officer.

He said: "To thrive it needs insects in the summer and seeds in the winter, but because cirl buntings don't migrate these feeding sites need to be in the same place.

"Sadly, changes in how land is managed means that neither of the bunting's needs were being met and the bird was suffering terribly."

Population crash

The bunting population crashed to just 118 pairs in 1989 and the birds were in serious danger of extinction.

The RSPB responded by launching the Cirl Bunting Project, which is funded by the government body English Nature and managed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The project involved giving farmers advice about land management and helping them apply for Countryside Stewardship funding.

The stewardship scheme provides funding for farmers to manage their land in a wildlife friendly way. The project has made a real difference to the cirl bunting.

Ben Bradshaw, minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries, said: "Countryside Stewardship provided the funding for farmers to restore lost features, including weedy winter stubbles, to the landscapes of south Devon.

"Without action, the cirl bunting would probably have been lost from Britain by now.

"The Cirl Bunting Project is a fine example of how working in partnership with the RSPB, the Rural Development Service and the farming community, we can achieve real success."

Better news for UK breeding birds
03 Sep 03  |  Science/Nature

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