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Real Stewardship!

Celebration as back-from-the-brink-bird thrives in UK

Today (Monday 10 November 2003) the RSPB and Ben Bradshaw MP, the Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries, are celebrating an important conservation success as results of a survey reveal that one of the UK`s rarest and most threatened birds has achieved almost a six-fold increase in numbers in just 14 years. The great increase in the population of the Cirl Bunting, a sparrow-sized farmland bird, to almost 700 pairs has bucked the overall downward trend for most farmland birds, and is thanks to a partnership between conservationists, farmers and government bodies, including English Nature and Defra. This relative of the more familiar yellowhammer is confined, in the UK, to south Devon, but formerly the bird ranged more widely across southern Britain. But, following decades of decline, driven by changes in farming and land use, the bird`s numbers crashed to just 118 pairs in 1989. This low-point triggered swift RSPB action to save the bird from British extinction.The joint RSPB and English Nature-funded Cirl Bunting Project was launched to help farmers protect these threatened birds on their land. The key successes of the project have been giving landowners targeted land management advice and helping them apply for Countryside Stewardship funding. The stewardship scheme, managed by Defra, can be tailored for those farmers with Cirl Buntings. It provides funding for 10 years and a series of land management prescriptions vital for the bird`s survival.Cath Jeffs, the RSPB`s Exeter-based Cirl Bunting project officer, said: The Cirl Bunting is one of our most attractive birds, but it`s also one of our fussiest. To thrive it needs a supply of large insects in summer and a rich source of seeds over winter. Because Cirl Buntings don`t migrate these feeding sites need to be in the same areas. Sadly, changes in how land is managed, especially the loss of the traditional spring sowing of cereal crops, means that neither of the bunting`s needs were being met and the bird was suffering terribly.

Countryside Stewardship provided the funding for farmers to restore lost features, including weedy winter stubbles, to the landscapes of south Devon and save the bird. Without action the Cirl Bunting would probably have been lost from Britain by now.
Mr Bradshaw, Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries, said: It is Defra`s business to make sure that our wildlife and habitats flourish. Defra agri-environment schemes provide the vital support for farmers and landowners so that they can create habitats that really do provide a haven for our specialised wildlife.

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.
Phil Grice, senior ornithologist with English Nature, added: Cirl Buntings have done so well because we spent time and money researching the conditions they need to thrive. English Nature invests more than ?3million a year enabling us to make decisions based on sound science and help bring back birds like the Cirl Bunting.

Mark Robins, RSPB senior policy officer, said: As the government considers new arrangements for improving the delivery of public services including the environment in the countryside, there is much that can be learnt from the experience of this very successful project. The combination of a good government scheme and financial support from a government agency has enabled the RSPB to work closely with farmers paying real attention to all the conditions that enable them to take positive action for the environment that so many of them want to take.Cath Jeffs added: The special project under Countryside Stewardship has been so important that most Cirl Buntings now nest within two kilometres of farms within the project. This is testimony to the importance of targeted funding and advice in helping to increase the populations of our most threatened birds. The challenge now facing conservation groups and government is to ensure that all wildlife reliant on sustainable farming can benefit from such schemes.

Building on the increase of Cirl Buntings in south Devon the RSPB hopes to see the bird occupy much more of its former range in Britain.NB: The Cirl Bunting survey, carried out in 2003, was organised by RSPB with funding from Defra and English Nature. RSPB research proves the Cirl Bunting needs a supply of large insects, especially grasshoppers, in summer to feed to its chicks, while in winter the bird needs rich sources of seeds. Traditionally, large insects would have been plentiful in hay fields and pastures. However, the switch from hay to silage-making and the use of inorganic fertilizers has meant that most grasslands now support far fewer insects. Historically, there would have been ample seeds in the `stubbles` after the harvest to help the bird find food over winter, but the traditional practice of planting crops in the spring and harvesting them in autumn has largely been replaced by sowing crops in the late autumn, almost immediately after the harvest. As a result, the stubble fields, once a rich winter source of seeds, have largely disappeared, taking the Cirl Bunting with them in many areas. Other seed-eating birds, including the tree sparrow, corn bunting and yellowhammer have been affected too.The Cirl Bunting is one of 39 birds placed on the UK red list of birds of conservation concern.

The Cirl Bunting special project is available through Countryside Stewardship to farmers in south Devon. It is a payment for growing a spring barley with reduced pesticides and leaving the resultant stubble untouched over-winter.

For further information and to arrange an interview, please contact: Grahame Madge, RSPB press officer, on: 01767 681577. Out of hours, please telephone: 07702 196902 (mobile) or 01234 870627 (home) English Nature press office on: 01733 455190 Denise Hart, Defra press officer, on: 0207 238 6044

4th July 2014