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In Search of Yellowhammer, Corn and Cirl Bunting

Julian Hughes Bird Notes columnist of RSPB Conwy wrote a while back about Yellowhammer, Corn Bunting and Cirl Bunting, in the Daily Post I think, quoting an article from the Llandudno Advertiser sent to him by Adrian Hughes at Llandudno’s  Home Front Museum.

In it RW Jones reviewed birdlife on the  Creuddyn Peninsula (Llandudno and surrounds) in 1909. He found Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting on breeding territory, yet today Corn  Buntings are not only extinct around Llandudno, but in Wales, and I doubt anyone has heard a Yellowhammer sing on the Creuddyn in recent years.

He mentions Yellow Wagtails on Bodafon Fields and hearing Tree Pipit, Wood Warbler and Nightjar below Gloddaeth. Cirl  Buntings sang on Bryn Pydew, a bird now found no closer than  South Devon, while Corncrakes  “were creaking in many  localities”, yet its nearest strongholds are now in the Hebrides.



Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer are a countryside charm, once, known to everyone within the rural community. Not a bird of garden feeding stations, unless your house backs on to a farm, I can think of no other bird whose bright yellow colour and song - ‘a little bit of bread and no cheeeeese’ - was so widely recognised. Now you will be lucky indeed to see or hear one.

The Welsh Yellowhammer population fell by 57% between 1994 and 2016 and along with other farmland species, such as the Corn Bunting, Linnet, Lapwing and Grey Partridge, the birds continue to struggle as habitat disappears and farmland no longer provides the seeds that the birds once thrived on - especially on all-grass farms. It is now a Red List species here in the UK.

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Although farmland wildlife faces significant challenges, there are things that farmers can do to help, either voluntarily or as part of agri-environment schemes. These include sowing seed-rich crops, managing hedgerows for wildlife and planting wildlife-friendly field margins.

The Northern Ireland Yellowhammer Recovery Project in East County Down where the RSPB continue to work with farmers has shown that wildlife-friendly farming can be achieved without compromising the profitability of farm businesses - the Yellowhammer population increasing by a dramatic 79% (State of Nature 2016:BTO).

Thankfully Yellowhammer are still fairly widespread throughout Wales, with the Dyfi Valley, Mawddach valley, Lleyn Peninsular, Pembrokeshire, Gower and Denbighshire all being key areas.

However it has disappeared as a breeding species around home. In sunshine, they often stood out being bright canary yellow - the ‘yellow bird of the gorse’ - Melyn yr Eithin, although an older name is Gwas y Neidr - meaning "Servant of the Snake". I’m sad not to hear it’s jingle of …. ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ ….. as I walk the lanes around home anymore. It epitomised the sound of Summer.

 

Richard Jefferies fondly remembers the Yellowhammer most from his boyhood - ‘There is sunshine in the song – and whose colour, like that of the wild flowers and the sky, has never faded from my memory’.

‘The colour of the yellowhammer appears brighter in spring and early summer: the bird is aglow with a beautiful and brilliant, yet soft yellow, pleasantly shaded with brown. He perches on the upper boughs of the hawthorn or on a rail, coming up from the corn as if to look around him—for he feeds chiefly on the ground—and uttering two or three short notes. His plumage gives a life and tint to the hedge, contrasting so brightly with the vegetation and with other birds. His song is but a few bars repeated, yet it has a pleasing and soothing effect in the drowsy warmth of summer’.

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Birds of a Southern County – Richard Jefferies

The following poem by John Clare could today almost be a lament for what must have been one of the most common farm and countryside birds.

When shall I see the white-thorn leaves agen,
And yellowhammers gathering the dry bents
By the dyke side, on stilly moor or fen,
Feathered with love and nature's good intents?
Rude is the tent this architect invents,
Rural the place, with cart ruts by dyke side.
Dead grass, horse hair, and downy-headed bents
Tied to dead thistles--she doth well provide,
Close to a hill of ants where cowslips bloom
And shed oer meadows far their sweet perfume.
In early spring, when winds blow chilly cold,
The yellowhammer, trailing grass, will come
To fix a place and choose an early home,
With yellow breast and head of solid gold.

by John Clare

I too also remember the Yellowhammer from my own boyhood, when they were in every hedge, bordering field and lane. I haven’t seen or heard one in many years but I do have a lovely framed print of a Yellowhammer by Gordon Beningfield in my collection of prints which I can offer  for sale.

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5 thoughts on “In Search of Yellowhammer, Corn and Cirl Bunting

  1. […] Yellowhammer is a common resident species here (West Cornwall). We usually think him an uninteresting bird on […]

  2. Really fascinating and informative. I like your mix of the factual, your own observations and the poems. Are there no poems for the Cirl Bunting? I first saw one here on our finca, in a cleared piece of land for my new vegetable plot. Now this year we are lucky to have a pair visiting near the house and feeding from the seed we throw out. They do come close and I’m hoping to take a photo. At first birds would not come near the house but would be in the trees and well hidden. We went on a wildwise course on listening to birdsong, in Dartmoor. This is where I saw and heard my first yellowhammer. I wish my Spanish was good enough to find out more about local action here but one of my Spanish naturalist friends thinks very little is done. Well done the RSPB working with farmers.

    1. Thank you for commenting. And welcome to my blog: A celebration of birds – in art and anecdote, poetry and prose – part memoir, part anthology, part nature writing, with biographical snippets about my favourite artists and writers – which brings the birds of my childhood back to brilliant life. I hope you enjoy it.

      Your home while not so far away sounds so different to the UK, so I’ll enjoy reading your posts.

      I’d love to include a poem about Cirl Bunting – but haven’t come across one yet. I’ll keep on looking.

      1. Thanks, and you have some amazing paintings to illustrate your blog. I will certainly enjoy following yours. One of my reasons to try and record the nature here was I think to not just celebrate but ensure there is a record of some of the diversity that exists. Then the characters and plot of a novel came to me as I have always dabbled in creative writing. I must also get back to some poetry too. I finally managed some photos of a female cirl bunting. Patience required. Must now wait for the more distinctive male!

  3. A Trace of Wings by Edwin Morgan

    A very unusual elegy to Basil Bunting, (1900 -1985)

    Corn Bunting             shy but perky; haunts fields; grain-scatterer
    Reed Bunting            sedge-scuttler; swayer; a cool perch
    Cirl Bunting               small whistler; shrill early; find him!
    Indigo Bunting           blue darter; like metal; the sheen
    Ortolan Bunting         haunts gardens; is caught; favours tables
    Painted Bunting         gaudy flasher; red, blue, green; what a whisk!
    Snow Bunting            Arctic flyer; ghost-white; blizzard-hardened
    Basil Bunting             the sweetest singer; prince of finches; gone from
                                       these parts

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