Tomorrow, in deepest Devon there will be a celebration of 25 years of work to save the ‘bird we nearly lost’ – the cirl bunting.  RSPB staff, who have led the recovery project for this species will be there alongside Sarah Wollaston MP (the bird's parliamentary champion), Natural England staff, project sponsors and most importantly, the farmers who have been at the heart of this work. They should be proud of their role and we owe them a huge deft of gratitude - this bird was saved because they chose to take the nature friendly options on their farms.

Image courtesy of Andy Hay (

The reason we are celebrating is that our survey this summer recorded 1,078 breeding pairs – passing the 1,000-pair target the RSPB set when it launched the Cirl Bunting Project  a quarter-century ago.  This is fabulous news, a wild bird of farmland going from the brink of extinction in this country (there were just 100 pairs left in 1989) to a population which is now much more secure. Something magical has been going on in Devon - more than 100 farmers have responded to the cirl’s plight and helped make this giant step in saving a unique farmland bird.  

What was the recipe for success?

Having decided to step in to help the cirl bunting, our team worked hard to understand why the species was declining (loss of food source and nesting sites brought about by changes in farming practices) and then come up with solutions.  

But these solutions needed to work for the farmer.  So we had to trying to see like the farmer - on their farm. Together we then put together all the ingredients that would allow farmers to take the nature friendly choice. Coming up with the right recipe hasn’t always been easy. There has been pain such as dealing with bureaucracy (filling in lots of forms) or farming problems like dealing with weeds (plants in the wrong place).  But there has also been gain as farmers are rewarded through agri-environment schemes (the incentives provided by government as a result of the filled-in forms) and the joy in knowing that they are giving nature is hand.   For these farmers, so far at least, the recipe has been a success.

Nationally, we take heart from knowing that hard work, willing farmers and government support can restore farmland wildlife.  But, locally working on farms, the difference is even more tangible - success can be seen and heard in the way that abstract national targets or programmes cannot. 

The experience we have gained from working on this project can help the UK Government as it strives to meet its international commitments to restore threatened species while restoring biodiversity in a generation through its 25 year environment plan: our future farming and landuse policy needs well designed, well funded nature friendly farming schemes with expert advice available to farmers.  Yet, just as important is the mindset of those keen to effect change on farms.  

Ultimately, the cirl bunting project worked because we worked with farmers to integrate pro-nature choices into a farm business.   This is the best way to a genuinely sustainable recovery for some of our most threatened birds.  

So, hats off to all those involved in this conservation success story from deepest Devon.  May we learn the lessons and put more colour and sound back into our countryside


  • Thanks Barbara - there is a nice time line on the project page (to which I included a link in my blog).  1988: The RSPB began research into cirl bunting ecology and the reasons behind their decline.  This gives you an overview of activity.  Hope that helps.

    1989: The RSPB and Devon Birdwatching and Preservation Society undertook a cirl bunting survey, which began to highlight the issues of a severe decline. There were just 118 pairs left in the UK, mainly confined to Devon.

    1992: The Countryside Stewardship Scheme (a Government-funded agri-environment scheme) introduced a cirl bunting 'special project' option for farmers to provide low input spring barley crops which, after harvest, were left as weedy stubbles until the end of March, so providing important sources of winter seed food. This particular cropping option was recommended by the RSPB on the basis of its scientific findings and targeted in the right places on farms within the cirl bunting's range, providing a lifeline for them (and other farmland birds) over winter. [This habitat is a very important part of helping cirl buntings and there are several important aspects to it: that it's a spring-sown crop, that it's barley, that the stubble is left until the end of winter so cirl buntings can feed on the split grain and seeds of broad-leaved weeds that grow in the stubble over winter, including the 'hungry gap' at the end of winter, and that this option was put in the right places in the right amounts.]

    1993: The RSPB employed a cirl bunting project officer to work with farmers and landowners to encourage suitable habitat provision for the birds.

    1997: Research began to look into the feasibility of possible sites for a cirl bunting reintroduction programme.

    1998: The RSPB national cirl bunting survey recorded 450 pairs, which were still mainly restricted to south Devon.

    2003: The RSPB/English Nature Defra-funded national cirl bunting survey recorded a population of 697 pairs.

    2004: Cirl bunting reintroduction trials started.

    2005: The Countryside Stewardship Scheme was replaced by Environmental Stewardship.

    2006: The cirl bunting reintroduction programme began.

    2007: The first breeding cirl buntings in Cornwall for over a decade were confirmed.

    2008: The RSPB bought land in Labrador Bay in Devon to make the UK's only cirl bunting nature reserve.

    2009: The National Cirl Bunting Survey (RSPB/Natural England) recorded 862 territories with some range expansion.

    2011: The last cirl bunting chicks were released into Cornwall as part of the reintroduction project.

    2014: After 10 years of habitat management, it was confirmed that cirl buntings were breeding at RSPB Powderham Marshes in Devon.

    2015: There were more than 50 breeding pairs in Cornwall.

  • But what did you actually DO!? Yes, the paperwork and public relations had to be sorted (well done), but the blog tells us nothing about what actually saved the cirl bunting. Exactly what changes to crops and framing practices were brought about?