Farmers help threatened corn bunting bounce back

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The Independent Online

The corn bunting was once a common sight in the hedgerows and fields of Britain's farmland but now it is rarely seen in many of its former haunts. Changing farm practices and climate change have taken their toll on the birds, whose numbers fell as much as 85 per cent between 1970 and 1998.

The corn bunting was once a common sight in the hedgerows and fields of Britain's farmland but now it is rarely seen in many of its former haunts. Changing farm practices and climate change have taken their toll on the birds, whose numbers fell as much as 85 per cent between 1970 and 1998.

But a project by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland at last appears to be increasing its numbers. The pilot project on farms in north-east Scotland has shown that the decline in corn bunting numbers can be slowed, and in some cases halted.

Over the past three years the Farmland Bird Lifeline (FBL) has concentrated on 23 farms in the corn bunting hotspot areas of Aberdeenshire, Angus and Fife. Since 2002, the farmers agreed with RSPB Scotland to engage in several bird-friendly practices, such as extensively managed crops and sowing seed mixtures to provide food and habitat.

One of the main reasons behind the demise of the corn buntings is the reduction in seed and insect food sources on modern farmland. They feed mainly on cereal grain seeds from harvested root crops, winter stubbles, newly sown crops and weeds in the crop margins. And the birds are late-nesting, so their nests are often destroyed during harvesting or cutting.

Now three years of data from the scheme, run with help from Scottish Natural Heritage and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, has shown corn buntings and other farmland birds such as tree sparrows, reed buntings and linnets all use these habitats, and corn buntings are more successfully holding their own on some FBL farms.

Ian Duncan, who farms near Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, said: "It has not impacted on my usual management and the results have been an increase in bird life across the whole farm. There may be a real chance of reversing some declines."

Corn buntings were singled out because the number of sites where they are found in Scotland has dropped by almost two- thirds between 1968 and 1991. Within the past decade, the corn bunting has been lost from the Inner Hebrides, Orkney, and some areas of the mainland, and it was feared the birds may eventually disappear from the country. Eastern Scotland now holds most of the country's remaining corn buntings.

To tackle the loss of nests through silage cutting, under the RSPB scheme farmers have agreed to delay cutting for as long as possible to safeguard the birds' nesting attempts and provide seed-rich habitats to help them through the winter.

Conservationists hope the scheme can be extended to prevent similar declines in other threatened bird species.

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