The Benefits to Wider Biodiversity of Cirl Bunting Land Management

Having recently started as an intern on the cirl bunting project, I am learning all the time about agri-environment schemes and the work that the RSPB does with farmers. For example, I learned that cirl bunting project staff have influenced the application of agri-environment schemes on over 10,000 hectares of land over the last 10 years. Last week, I went on a site visit to an arable farm near Dawlish which gave me first-hand experience of the help and advice that the RSPB offers, and I was also impressed with how positive (this particular) farmer was about being part of the scheme.

The cirl bunting project is a perfect example of how habitat management can successfully reverse the fortunes of a species that was at risk of extinction – in 1999 the number of pairs was just 118, and in 2009 this had increased to 862. Without the cooperation and enthusiasm of farmers to enter into agri-environment agreements and engage with conservation this would not have been possible, particularly considering the species’ specific habitat requirements and sedentary nature. However, it is not just cirl buntings themselves who have benefitted from habitat implemented for cirl buntings.

Many species of conservation concern overlap with the cirl range and many of these have similar habitat requirements; it is therefore expected that some of these other species are likely to have benefited. Providing weed-rich winter stubbles, cropping in spring rather than autumn and managing unimproved grassland and hedgerows for cirl buntings also benefits a variety of other seed-eating farmland birds including skylark, reed bunting and linnet; all of these species are flagged as requiring action in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and are listed under Section 41 Species of Principal Importance.

The grey long-eared bat also suffered as a result of agricultural intensification. Agri-environment options such as the restoration of hedges and the use of field margins will increase the amount of foraging habitat available for the grey long-eared bat. These rough field margins associated with sensitive management of hedgerows will also benefit the greater and lesser horseshoe bats as well as barn owls.

The restoration of unimproved grassland by the reintroduction of grazing, reduced inputs and scrub clearance encourages flowering plants to grow, providing a nectar source for butterfly species including Wall Brown and Dingy Skipper. The provision of cattle-grazed pasture together with sensitive hedgerow management will allow the European hedgehog to thrive, and reptiles such as adders and common lizards will benefit from species-rich grasslands. 

Probably the species most likely to have benefited from cirl management are those associated with low input arable as without cirls this valuable habitat would not have featured as a priority within agri-environment. Arable fields provide ideal habitat for a variety of rare arable plants that require disturbed ground and no application of herbicides to flourish, and a number of farms that are important for cirls have also been recognised for their important arable plant assemblages, some of national importance. Many, such as corn spurrey and weasel’s snout, germinate in spring and therefore benefit from low input spring sown crops, whereas other such as cornflower actually prefer autumn germination but will also appear in spring.

So clearly, the benefits of cirl bunting habitat management offered by agri-environment schemes are not limited to just one bird, and cirls can therefore be seen as a Flagship for declining farmland in the SW and the catalyst for positive management. At the same time the RSPB has found no adverse effects of this habitat modification on any other species; by identifying priority species and habitats on site before implementing such measures, it is ensured that this continues to be the case.  

  • Robert,  A good project and it is quite often the case that managing for one species benefits many others.  I have on my wall a print of 'Wiltshire Birds' by Eric Ennion.  It includes Cirl Bunting so when you get a few spare please can we have some back.