Rare songbird is returned to Cornwall

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Europe's first songbird reintroduction programme is celebrating after cirl buntings, one of Britain's rarest and most attractive small birds, were found last week to be breeding in Cornwall - where they had been extinct for many years.

The discovery of a nest with two chicks is a major landmark in efforts to restore populations of the birds to Britain's farmland, where they have been devastated by agricultural intensification.

While species such as skylarks and lapwings have suffered huge declines, the even prettier cirl bunting was hit hardest. A close relative of the yellowhammer, with a striking yellow-and-black head pattern in the male, it was once common, but by 1989 was down to 118 pairs, all in south Devon.

However, a programme of agri-environmental agreements has enabled Devon farmers to create ideal habitats on their land, and the population has risen to more than 700 pairs.

Yet the bird's range did not correspondingly re-expand, as they do not travel far from where they are born. So, for the first time in Europe, a reintroduction programme was conceived along the lines of the restorations that have been so successful in Britain for endangered birds of prey.

A partnership led by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), involving Natural England, the National Trust and Paignton Zoo, decided that an area of south Cornwall offered the best chance. Last summer, more than 70 chicks were taken from their Devon nests and hand-reared in Cornwall by Paignton Zoo aviculturalists before being released.

This spring, at least eight pairs are thought to have come together to breed, and last week the first nest with chicks in was found.

"These are wonderful birds and this is absolutely wonderful news," said Cath Jeffs, who runs the project for the RSPB.

* Choughs, the red-billed crows which are the iconic birds of Cornwall, have also bred successfully for the sixth year since returning to the county in 2001.

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