Wednesday, July 14, 1999 Published at 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
Bunting's revival boosts birdlovers' hopes
Cirl bunting: Back from the brink
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby
One of the UK's most threatened farmland birds has been helped back from the brink of disappearance by a government-funded scheme.
The bird, the cirl bunting, survives best in areas where there is less intensive farming, something which the government's Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme aims to promote.
CS was set up in 1991, and operates throughout England, outside the separately-designated environmentally sensitive areas. The Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) says CS exists to "protect, enhance, restore and recreate targeted landscapes, their wildlife habitats and historical features".
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) began working with the cirl bunting, a finch-like bird, in 1989.
It used to be widely distributed across southern Britain, but by 10 years ago there were only 130 pairs left. It has also declined sharply in some other western European countries.
Numbers up by 70%
The birds have exacting requirements. They need grassland where they can find the grasshoppers that form an important part of their chicks' diet.
CS funds farmers to retain the conditions the cirl bunting needs, and the RSPB says the scheme has encouraged the bunting population "to increase threefold to around 456 pairs". It estimates that the birds' numbers have increased by 70% on land covered by CS, but by just 2% on land outside the scheme.
More than 80 farmers have signed CS agreements, and CS land benefiting cirl buntings now amounts to about 3,600 acres.
Some additional funding comes from the government's official wildlife adviser, English Nature, under its species recovery programme.
But the RSPB says the success of the scheme in helping both birds and farmers shows the need for it to be extended. Its agricultural policy officer, Vicki Swales, said: "The success of the scheme in south Devon really shows the potential of CS to help meet national conservation targets".
"But, with an annual budget of only £26 million, there are many otherwise excellent applications from farmers which get turned down every year.
"The RSPB will be appealing to the Countryside Minister to double the annual Countryside Stewardship budget to £52 m."
The group says other farmland birds declining fast which CS could help include the skylark, song thrush, yellowhammer, corn bunting, tree sparrow and lapwing.