Corn buntings were once one of Scotland’s fastest declining birds, but thanks to the efforts of farmers and landowners across Fife, Angus and NE Scotland they are now on the road to recovery. Kirsty Nutt explains how the work of landowners is helping to bring them back from the brink of extinction and details how a new project is celebrating their story and the links between food, farming and wildlife.
Celebrating the return of corn buntings with (potentially) Scotland’s first-ever food, farming and wildlife trails
What is a corn bunting?
If you search “corn bunting” online, which we probably all must admit is now our first reaction any time we are faced with a question we can’t answer, you’ll find several unflattering descriptions: non-descript, streaky brown, large, dumpy, plain.
Corn Bunting. Credit: Ian Francis
In truth, they are probably never going to win any beauty pageants, but for me corn buntings are striking birds with a lot of character.
They are the largest UK bunting, about 30% bigger than a house sparrow and weighing the same as five £1 coins. Their rotund appearance and reliance on farmed land, particularly mixed and arable, led to them having nicknames like “corn dumpling” and the “fat bird of the barley”. I like to believe both were terms of endearment because corn buntings have charisma and a hearty sex life.
Corn buntings have a distinctive song, sometimes likened to jangling keys, which they sing from perches such as hedges, fence posts and wires. They even have regional dialects!
During the breeding season the males often fly about with their dangling down beneath the body. It looks a bit odd to me, but this corn bunting equivalent of man-spreading seems to be effective as males are successful serial polygamists – the mating record for one male is a staggering 18 females over the course of the summer and six simultaneously!
So, perhaps a nicer way to describe them than nondescript streaky brown lumps is dangly-legged, jangly-songed, sexy birds of the barley.
Eat, nest, love
Corn buntings feed on seeds throughout the year and often join large mixed flocks of birds in winter to feed in farmland in stubble fields or seed-rich wild bird cover crops (Can you spot the corn bunting in the picture below?).
Flock of winter birds. Credit: Hywel Maggs
They nest on the ground in crops and feed their chicks on insects. They prefer spring crops and grass to winter crops for nesting where the female builds a grass nest in dense vegetation. She incubates the eggs by herself, but the male may help to feed the chicks once they have hatched.
They start nesting late in the spring and can have flightless chicks in August. Corn buntings are late nesters in the bird world which is partly what has caused them to be in so much trouble.
Corn bunting declines 1966-2017
Corn buntings were once abundant, though patchily distributed, throughout most of Britain and Ireland. So abundant that they were often called common buntings. Between 1970 and 2003, rapid declines in numbers led to extinction in Ireland, an end to regular breeding in Wales and made them one of the fastest declining birds in England and Scotland.
Between 1989 and 2007, at 25 sites in eastern Scotland, they suffered an 83% decline – that’s equivalent to eight out of every ten birds! At that time, it was thought that as few as 800 singing males were left in just four strongholds – Fife, Angus, NE Scotland (Moray and Aberdeenshire) and the Western Isles.
Distribution map of corn buntings from 2008-2011
For many years, the production of cereal crops had allowed corn buntings to thrive, but with growing demand for food, farming intensified. Changes in the timings of harvesting and planting, types of crop, an increase pesticide use, and the removal of hedgerows all contributed to a decrease in the availability of winter seed food, of summer food including fewer insects to feed chicks and of nesting habitat. Because corn buntings are a late nesting species, their nests or chicks are often destroyed during harvesting or cutting of crops and grasslands.
Changes in farming practices, in both the breeding season and winter, have contributed to the decline of corn buntings in Scotland, but it is also how farmers and landowners are now helping them.
Back from the brink
In Fife and Angus, the commitment of local farmers, estates and other land owners has turned the tide for this iconic species and is showing fantastic results.
In Angus, corn bunting numbers increased by more than 26% in just one year (2016-2017) and all corn buntings have had easy access to the Big Three since 2018 – seed food, summer insect food and safe nesting habitat.
In Fife, there has been a 60% increase in corn bunting territories over the last four years and numbers in 2018 had doubled since their lowest point in 2001.
We also recorded the first range expansions in both areas, where corn buntings started to spread over larger areas.
The Fife Corn Bunting Recovery Project now also includes other land managers such as golf courses and the local council. Fife Council, the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust and Pittenweem Arts Festival have all established corn bunting seed mix plots on council-owned land with school children. Pittenweem Arts Festival have also supported the project by exhibiting corn bunting art work which had been created by an artist in residence working with local schools.
Corn bunting artwork
The remarkable success has been achieved through increased efforts by the farming community and other landowners to help corn buntings in both Angus and Fife through a mix of greening and agri-environment schemes. The main management option consists of the establishment of unharvested wild bird seed mix plots.
Wild bird seed mix along a field boundary. Credit: Yvonne Stephan
Due to the large number of participating farms, theses plots are now spread across most of the two corn bunting core areas. Plots provide winter seed food, insect food in summer as well as a safe nesting places. They are often complemented by other beneficial management options such as over winter stubbles which provide seed food, late mown grass which provides safe nesting places, wild flower margins, beetle banks and conservation headlands which provide insect food in summer.
While many of these options are easy for farmers to incorporate in to their plans, delaying grass cutting long enough to help corn buntings inevitably means the quality goes down. So that poses us an interesting challenge – can we find grasses that can be cut later that are of the same nutritional value. As always, we are trying to solve by gathering evidence through research and testing potential solutions.
We are embarking on a late-mown grass silage for corn bunting trial project on two farms in NE Scotland using new varieties of grasses.
Declines in corn buntings in NE Scotland are closely linked to their preference for nesting in growing forage grass fields. Managing a selection of silage fields in key areas as late-cut grass (after 1 August) could reduce the loss of nests and chicks through mowing and help corn buntings recover if employed on a wide-scale.
However, once grasses mature their nutritional value goes down meaning silage rapidly declines in quality of left uncut for too long making it of low feed value for livestock.
Since farmers depend on high quality feed for their animals, it is tricky for them to include this management on a wider scale.
In the new project, we are working with two local farmers to trial a variety of grasses which mature late (and have even managed to source seed for one variety only grown in Nordic regions). The hope is that we can identify a new seed mix which will maintain a higher nutritional value despite being cut late. This could save many chicks’ lives with no disadvantage for farmers.
Celebrating the links between food, farming and wildlife
There is another exciting development this year. Leading on from all the amazing work land owners and farmers have been doing in Fife to help corn buntings, the People’s Postcode Lottery have provided funding to help us deliver a new project called Corn Buntings in the Community.
The aim of the project is to develop self-guided walking and cycling routes around the East Neuk area of Fife to engage locals and visitors with the work being done to help corn buntings while also connecting them with where their food comes from and to show how wildlife-friendly farming can benefit wildlife and people. These are potentially Scotland’s first-ever food, farming and wildlife trails.
Throughout the summer we will be at events talking to people about the project and organising trial guided walks for people in the East Neuk area of Fife to come on. These walks will give people the chance to learn more about corn buntings and help us figure out what it is people would like to see from these walks in the future.
Keep an eye out on our website for future walks and cycles but if you have some ideas or feedback we would love to hear from you.
It takes a village to save corn buntings
There are an amazing 17 monitoring volunteers and one office volunteer currently helping with various corn bunting project activities. The amazing success of the corn bunting recovery projects would not be possible without them.
It also wouldn’t be possible without the passion, determination and commitment of farmers and landowners who are often going above and beyond to manage their land to help corn buntings.
And it wouldn’t be possible without the many funders that have supported this work over the years too.
Here’s hoping that the “sexy birds of the barley” continue to have a bright future in the east of Scotland.
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