Last week the Devon Partnership NHS Trust destroyed a winter stubble field at their Hillcrest site near Exminster in Devon. The site was home to a nationally important population of cirl buntings. The full story and our reaction is described here

The NHS Trust have formally apologised in writing for the actions at Hillcrest and requested a meeting with us to discuss the future of this site. Naturally we still regret the loss of the stubble in which the birds feed over winter, but will now pursue this matter positively with the birds' interests at the fore. In the short term, the RSPB is working with the team on site (with whom we've had a great relationship for years) to provide supplementary feed for the cirls.

However, due to the publicity around the case we've had a lot of people asking what they can do to help. Which is always brilliant, thank-you! So ...

Very soon, the inspector will be making his report on the Teignbridge Local Plan.  This will determine where development will be looked on favourably and vice-versa.  Parallel to this the RSPB has been doing a lot of work with Teignbridge planners to help them develop a strategic approach to cirls in the area.

Now is a very good time for our supporters, to write to the leader of Teignbridge council, copying in their local MP, to ask in your own words:

1  That the planning system in Teignbridge ensures that there will be no net loss of cirl buntings, indeed there should be a net gain. 

2 That the very best sites should be protected.

3 That in the situations in which development needs genuinely override cirl bunting presence, robust mitigation and compensation should be required of developers to find space alongside development which can be managed appropriately, long-term, for cirls – so that the species experiences at worse no net loss, but preferably net gain, through the planning process.

People can find out more background information on cirl buntings here

The leader of the council’s details are here

Your MP’s details are here

If you live in Teignbridge, please also copy the letter to your local councillor - details here

And do remember, the RSPB is not against development per se. Indeed, nature can gain from development if it’s done properly, strategically, and in discussion with conservationists – Wallesea, and its relation to Crossrail, is one striking example of this. Our key concern with Hillcrest – the reason we were particularly “livid” - was that there was no conversation with us on a site with which we’ve been involved for over a decade – the land was just ploughed. We had no chance to talk about how we could work this out with the NHS for the benefit of cirls.

Conserving birds in situ is always preferable.  However, with a species such as cirl bunting, which is dependent on agricultural land managed in a fairly specific way, but whose habitat is not protected outside the breeding season, the birds are wholly dependent on farmers continuing to farm the land sympathetically.  If a landowner wants to develop that land, and sees cirl buntings as an obstacle to securing planning permission, there is nothing to stop him or her farming the land in a way that reduces the value of it for cirl buntings.  We therefore try to work with farmers and developers in these situations to ensure that if development is going to happen, cirl buntings don’t lose out.  We do this by seeking ecological mitigation and/or compensation.

I realise that the “mitigate and compensate” approach isn’t to everyone’s taste. Especially if a patch of land next to where you live is being developed and you wish to stop it – and you see cirl buntings as one means of doing this. But the planning system doesn’t work like that.

Put simply, if land is allocated in the Local Plan for housing, then the principle of development at the site is established, and a developer is likely to put in an application for planning permission. At that point the first thing that we will encourage them to consider, if the site has cirl buntings, is mitigation. Can cirl buntings be “saved” through the way the site is designed, for instance by avoiding development of the areas of particular value to them, and seeking the appropriate management of that land, which can include enhancement of features and habitats and provide long-term security. If yes, then we will try to ensure that such measures are included as a condition to the permission and the work is done. And the cirl buntings should not lose out.

If you can’t mitigate, then the next thing that is considered is off-site compensation. Can alternative land be found to safeguard the population as a whole? If yes, then the developers pay for this compensation. Our reserve at Labrador Bay for instance is compensation for the building of the Kingskerswell Bypass. And it’s working. In enabling the acquisition of Labrador Bay, the outcome of the building of the road, notwithstanding its other environmental dis-benefits,  will result in a substantial net increase in cirls.

However, in other places, if there is no suitable mitigation and compensation, and a nationally, or internationally important population or site will be damaged, that’s a red line – particularly where such a development contravenes the EC Nature Directives (the Wild Birds and Habitats Directives). In such situations, we will endeavour to prevent the development. The development at Talbot Heath in Dorset was one such because it threatened the integrity of an internationally important heathland complex and there was no suitable mitigation or compensation available. And we fought and won that one. But that was the exception.

So to safeguard cirl buntings, most of the time we need to work WITH the planning authorities and developers and their consultants. But it's always a good thing if the local council understands the strength of local feeling for these precious birds, and is therefore minded to work with organisations such as ourselves for a good outcome. Which is why writing in support of cirl buntings is something our members could really help us with.

But always remember, practically and pragmatically safeguarding populations is our job. Sure, we could be out there with placards bluntly opposing all development anywhere near any cirls. But if we followed that route, we’d almost undoubtedly end up with fewer birds, because it simply wouldn't protect them and we’d have failed in our job. 

And don't forget - if you are a member, your support helps us deal with cases like this and is absolutely vital - thank you. And perhaps, if you are not a member, you might like to consider joining us.

  • Thanks Naturalist ... all good thoughts. Re. other farmers hobbling their successors by working with us, most certainly not. We acknowledge that sympathetic management is only ever short term (apart from on RSPB nature reserves). We work with pro-nature farmers (of which thankfully there are a lot) to develop agri-environment agreements that reward them for sympathetic management, but this only ever lasts up to 10 years per agreement. If land changes ownership or the landowner changes their agricultural regime at the end of an agreement, it’s clearly disappointing, but there’s no recourse available to us other than to try to continue to collaborate. The accusation has been levelled at us (as, per your blog, at the NHS Trust) that we were naive to invest resource at Hillcrest without any long-term certainty that cirls buntings would be conserved there. But clearly that collaboration has worked up until recently, retaining and growing a resilient cirl bunting population at the north-east of their range, establishing a platform from which the species’ range can be encouraged to expand north and east. Nature conservation routinely requires entrepreneurship and risk-taking – the likes of the RSPB are never going to have the resources be able to buy up enough land to prevent wildlife declines across the board – and if this really were the only solution, we and our allies will have failed to achieve a fundamental tenet on which nature conservation depends -  for wildlife to be valued by people and by politicians, and for this value to be reflected in State-funded and regulated nature conservation delivery – or at least establishment/maintenance of the vehicles through which that delivery can take place. Although it doesn’t provide long-term certainty of sympathetic management at any given site, our approach of positive working with sympathetic farmers has enabled the population to expand 8-fold from near extinction in the late ‘80s. Long-term certainty, which arguably is needed at key sites, can only be provided by nature conservation bodies such as the RSPB buying nature reserves, such as Labrador Bay, and/or by establishing a network of cirl bunting SSSIs to protect the very best sites. SSSIs would tie affected farmers into specific management, and for this reason are unlikely to be popular, but it would also increase availability to them of agri-environment payments. In the absence of SSSIs, is it not reasonable to expect public bodies to work to enable wildlife to thrive, particularly if it dovetails well with their operational needs of a site, such as at Hillcrest? And, should an alternative use be required of that land, to work openly to ensure that the wildlife the site supports can if possible be conserved?

  • Be careful the message you send out.

    One of our other recent blogs refers to attempts to “understand things from another's viewpoint”  and mentions how difficult it is to “understand another person's viewpoint”

    So lets try.

    (These thoughts cannot be unique: there are 59 million non RSPB members out there. )

    Your comments on development in general reflect a rational approach.

    I realise your ire when you  were let down by their agents unilateral actions when you were working together..

    I gather  from the other blog on the 11th on cirl you built up this habitat over 15 years.

    Viewed another way it appears the NHS were naive to let you build up a population on land they may eventually want to develop. OK you say "we could work this out with the NHS for the benefit of cirls." But you appear to be orchestrating a campaign against them in the media and with the local council and you say  "the developers pay for this compensation" or  should not develop the whole site, which comes to the same thing it costs them.

    Message to landowner don't get yourself into this situation by creating a high value wildlife site.

    I say  the NHS were naive as it is clear if you dig a pond and crested newts  move in you loose control of it and the general population moves in and demands rights over it. You may think that is fair enough others may differ and they may own land which you would like managed for wildlife.

    The other examples you give are already existing sites that are to be developed and  there it is fair enough to require mitigation. How you separate “existing” from a “created” site is a subject for debate.

    This site seem unusual in that for a time it was not needed and in the meanwhile you managed it and cropped it with cirl.

    How does it work with other farmers you “work with” for the benefit of cirl. When their farms change hands are these farms trapped in a winter stubble cropping requirement or face demands for compensatory arrangements, from your comments here it seems so.

    Your members may not hear the message and rant on websites but be sure others will!

    Or to quote the first mentioned blog am I making “assumptions about what the others are thinking”

  • I'd be interested in hearing how the NHS explain their actions. Please keep us updated if possible.