Saving the Corn Bunting

East Neuk Estates

The corn bunting was once widespread but large declines led to extinction in Ireland, an end to regular breeding in Wales and made the corn bunting one of the fastest declining birds in England and Scotland. 95% of Scotland’s corn buntings are found in eastern Scotland, but even in their last strongholds, they declined by 83% between 1989 and 2007.

The combination of a late breeding season, a preference for nesting in growing crops and the dependence on the availability of cereal seeds over the winter and large insects in summer, makes corn buntings especially vulnerable to modern agricultural practices.

However, the East Neuk Estates group as well as local farmers and land managers in Angus and Fife have shown an outstanding commitment to change the fortunes of these iconic birds. In an attempt to reverse corn bunting declines, they are implementing a range of measures providing the ‘big three’ – safe nesting places, insect-rich summer foraging habitats and winter seed food, using a combination of upgraded greening measures, voluntary action and agri-environment scheme options.

Measures include

• Growing plots of a cereal based bee and bunting seed mix (left unharvested over winter)
• Delaying silage harvest to avoid nest destruction
• Improving the habitat on a wider landscape scale for example by introducing conservation headlands, leaving land fallow after stubbles or managing some fodder crops extensively to name just a few.

Studies carried out by RSPB Scotland in collaboration with 74 farmers, have shown that in order to sustainably halt and reverse the decline of this species, three-quarters of the mainland population needs to receive such targeted management. With the help of 34 farms and the East Neuk Estates Group, we have now achieved this ambitious target in two of the last corn bunting strongholds: 100% of corn buntings in Angus and approximately 76% of corn buntings in Fife will have access to the big three from 2017.

Due to the beneficial management, corn bunting numbers are now increasing locally and last year, we saw the highest increase in corn bunting numbers in Fife in any single year since monitoring began: between 2015 and 2016, the number of territories increased by 18%, from 62 to 73 on participating farms and estates.

In addition, birds have also recolonised farms in Angus and Fife, where they hadn’t been seen in years. Together with a first local range expansion in the East Neuk, this gives hope that the species may start to spread once again.  These positive results demonstrate clearly what can be achieved when working together and what an immense difference it can make whenever people join forces.

The corn bunting recovery project is a collaboration between farmers, land managers, the East Neuk Estates Group and RSPB Scotland and is supported in many ways by a wide range of partners such as SNH, Marks and Spencer, Kettle Produce, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Angus Environmental Trust and the Fife Environment Trust. Recently, Fife Council and four Fife golf courses have joined the project and there are plans to involve local communities and schools over the coming years.