One early autumn evening, I was standing out of doors when the sun came out beneath a bank of dark cloud and lit up the weathered, soft blue-grey slate roof of our old barn. No sooner had the light fallen on it than a few Yellowhammer dropped down out of nowhere and sat motionless on the sun-warmed slates, with heads drawn in and plumage bunched out. It was as if the sun had poured a golden-coloured light into their loose feathers making them shine a bright canary yellow ...
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 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.
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’.
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.
Derwent May and Stephen Moss writing, respectively, in the Times and Guardian, in 2017, have both highlighted the plight of this once common Bunting.
The Corn Bunting, as its name suggests, has been living alongside us for at least five thousand years, ever since our Neolithic ancestors first cleared the forests to farm the land. It is not a showy bird, like the Yellowhammer; nor is it celebrated for its extraordinary song like the Skylark. So perhaps we have rather taken the corn bunting for granted.
Once widespread, 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 Bunting are found in eastern Scotland, but even in their last strongholds, they declined by 83% between 1989 and 2007.
Currently the National population of the male Corn Bunting is estimated to be 750 to 900 birds, which is 34-41 per cent of the 2,200 males estimated in 1993. It is red listed in the UK.
The Corn Bunting Recovery Project in Scotland, is a collaboration between farmers, land managers, RSPB Scotland and the East Neuk Estates Group, in an attempt to reverse Corn Bunting declines.
Using a combination of upgraded greening measures, voluntary action and agri-environment scheme options, Corn Bunting numbers are now increasing locally and last year, 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.
There are other small pockets of land in other parts of the country, managed by farmers and private estates where it’s clear that by working the land in a way that takes nature into account, you can have a wealth of wildlife and still make a profit.
Stephen Moss writes - I recently heard the Corn Bunting’s song on the Cholderton Estate, an organic farm on the border between Hampshire and Wiltshire, and also a few miles to the north on the Marlborough Downs. Both these locations are filled with birdsong – not just the common farmland species, but also those most under threat, including Tree Sparrow and Yellowhammer as well as Corn Bunting.
In 2015 Nick Adams, a wildlife adviser (and former RSPB employee) to Pertwood Cereals, Lower Pertwood Farm, Wiltshire - on the western edge of Salisbury Plain - set up and walked six survey routes covering the 1,000 or so acres of potential nesting habitat on the farm. After many hours the final total was astounding; 134 territories, nearly 2% of the UK Corn Bunting population on just one farm! This means that Lower Pertwood Farm is a nationally important site for corn buntings.
Read more at:
John Clare called the Corn Bunting the ground lark and celebrated it in verse:
Close where the milking maidens pass
In roots and twitches drest
Within a little bunch of grass
A groundlark made her nest
The maiden touched her with her gown
And often frit her out
And looked and set her buckets down
But never found it out
The eggs where large and spotted round
And dark as is the fallow ground
The schoolboy kicked the grass in play
But danger never guest
And when they came to mow the hay
They found an empty nest
They were locally common in North Somerset and Wiltshire, where I grew up, in the 1960s and many a Summers cycle ride was made more enjoyable by listening to their ‘jangling keys’ song while having a cheese and pickle sandwich, washed down by a flask of home brewed ginger beer. I also think they may have bred on a cousins farm near Market Lavington, on the northern slopes of Salisbury Plain.
I remember them as being corn-coloured, with a stout beak the shade of straw; and rather stout. They throw their head back and open their beak wide when they sit and sing, from a favourite perch on a boundary fence or small hedgerow tree. The song is easy to recognise as it rings out across the fields in a series of clicking notes that rapidly gets faster and ends in a metallic jangle, like a bunch of keys being rattled. They continue to sing until mid-August.
So to paraphrase Derwent May: maybe we may yet once more have the pleasant surprise of hearing that jangling song coming from afar, of Corn Bunting singing as we walk across the fields before the combine harvesters move in to mow the barley and oilseed rape.
Cirl Bunting are an attractive and iconic Devon species. In the late 1890s, Cirl Bunting were quite widespread and locally common across the UK, occurring as far north as Cheshire and into parts of Wales, yet within 100 years they have become one of the UK’s rarest farmland birds.
These small birds, the size of a Sparrow, are a close relative of the Yellowhammer, but are distinguished by the male’s striking black ‘zorro’ eye strip and yellow head, and attractive green, yellow and brown chest. Both sexes have olive-brown rumps whereas Yellowhammer have chesnut rumps. Cirl Bunting are very sedentary birds so need all their habitat requirements in a small area. They fare best in traditional mixed farmland – a landscape characterised by a patchwork of small arable fields and grazed pastures, bounded by tall, thick hedges, and abundant scrub on valley slopes and in field corners.
Though in a sense a shy bird the Cirl Bunting does not necessarily shun the habitations of man, if the locality be suitable. The plumage, like that of the Yellowhammer, is subject to considerable variation, some males being more brightly coloured than others, according to age; this obtains in the female also, but in a less degree. It is often sociable in the breeding season, as well as at other times, for it is not unusual to hear two or more birds singing at once at no great distance from one another.
My first, and only, sighting was of a female in a hedge bordering the lane leading from my uncles farm - Netton Farm at Noss Mayo - in the late 50s. The farm was one of three, owned by the cooperative society, I believe, that my Uncle managed. A large dairy farm with plenty of hay meadows, hedges, pasture and heathland leading to Netton Downs and Stoke Point (NT) on the coast. The farm also had breeding Red Backed Shrike - but I never got to see one. Cirl Bunting can still be seen on the downs here and if you’re lucky a Dartford Warbler; but sadly no Red Backed Shrike despite sporadic attempts to breed in Devon within the last 10 years.
Edward Grey has a charming story to tell of his first encounter:
‘In July, when so many songs have ceased, it is worth while to note the birds that still continue in full song. Larks, Wrens and Yellowhammer have been familiar to us in the earlier months, and we hear them still ; but there are some minor songs to which, though they began weeks ago, we now have time to give special attention. Three of these are buntings, that come into song later than the Yellowhammer. The Cirl Bunting is the best singer of the three ; it is a bird that is common only in certain districts. The song resembles the first part of that of the Yellowhammer but is fuller in tone ; it has, however, not the variety of the Yellowhammer song ; it suggests to me the ringing of a small electric bell of pleasant tone and good quality of sound, but monotonous.
My first hearing of it was an incident not to be forgotten. I was bicycling back from the Test to the Itchen Valley; I had taken field-glasses, for the object of the ride was to look out for birds. I left the Test Valley at Stockbridge and had reached the turn beyond Lainston, where a side road makes a short- cut to the left to Harestock : at the turn I missed the field-glasses and knew that I must have left
them at the inn at Stockbridge, some miles distant: the road has many ups and downs, and it is no pleasant matter to retrace miles just travelled with the knowledge that after retracing them one must come back over them again. The consciousness that nothing but one’s own carelessness is to blame makes the process exasperating. The impulse is to take it out of oneself by exercise, as if punishment of the body were some compensation, for forgetful-ness of the mind. One is eager to get back to the starting-point as soon as possible, and thus obliterate the loss of time and temper caused by the affair. There was no dismount till Stockbridge was reached: there I laid hand on the glasses, re-mounted immediately, and took the hill on the Winchester road out of Stockbridge without getting off. No mean performance for a Member of Parliament in the middle of the sedentary session in days when there were no change-gear bicycles. At the very spot where I had missed the glasses and had resolved that I must go back for them, I heard a song new to me. In a moment there was a dis-mount, and the glasses were out of their case ; the bird was sitting on the top of one of the bushy yew trees that are so common in hedges in chalk country, and I was looking at and hearing a Cirl Bunting; pictures of the bird were well known to me, and the lemon yellow and chocolate colour about the head made it unmistakable. This was more than compensation for time lost: indeed, hearing the song of the bird at that very spot seemed like a reward for the resolution taken there, though the spirit of wrath in which I had ridden those extra miles to Stockbridge and back had merited no such gracious occurrence. Afterwards I came to know the bird as common in that district, as W. H. Hudson so describes it in Hampshire Days.’
S. G. CUMMINGS. In ‘British Birds’ 1908 also wrote of the song and call of the Cirl Bunting:
In wet or windy weather the bird is rarely noticed, even in places where it is known to occur. On hot sunny days in July you may hear the song to best advantage, when other birds are mostly silent. The monotonous song has been described by some writers as resembling that of the Yellowhammer, but to me it is much more like the loud trilling of the Lesser Whitethroat, as stated by Montagu, or even like that of the Greenfinch. It is, perhaps, most frequently iterated from the upper branches of high trees, but it will often sing on low walls, on hedges and bushes, on buildings, and even on the ground. The usual call-note, Seebohm affirms, is like that of the Yellowhammer, but the Robin's note of distress—only somewhat thinner in tone—is, I think, much more nearly the sound. This call-note of the Cirl Bunting is as unmistakable as the song when once learnt, and often betrays the presence of the bird when it would otherwise be overlooked. When singing the head is thrown well back, almost vertically, and the mandibles widely extended; the song is sometimes varied in key by the same bird.
In North Wales it was first identified by Mr. C. G. Beale in 1881, in the Ceiriog Valley, Denbighshire. S. G. CUMMINGS writing in British Birds 1908 states he also found it near Abergele, at Llanfair Talhairan, Llandulas, Nantglyn and Deunant-isaf near Llansannan: And in Flintshire in some numbers all along the valley lying between Mold and Bodfari, also near Llanferres, and in the country east of Moel Famma, at Tremeirchion, and at the foot of Hope Mountain; near the Little Orme, at Llangwstenin, Penrhyn, Pabo, near Colwyn Bay, and also up the Conway Valley. In Carnarvonshire Mr. O. V. Aplin heard two singing at Llanbedrog in Lleyn, in 1899.
Since then changes in farming practice resulted, by the late 1980s, in almost the entire UK population being restricted to South Devon. Dedicated conservation effort has now halted and reversed their catastrophic decline. However, Cirl Bunting remain rare (1,079 pairs recorded in last systematic national survey in 2016) and very restricted in range, with most of the population in South Devon, confined to suitable farmland between Exeter and Plymouth.
The RSPB Cirl Bunting project was set up in the 1990s to provide free advice to farmers and landowners and work with local communities to reverse the fortune of this species. Over the past 25 years they have developed trusting partnerships with many farmers who have risen to the challenge to provide habitats for the Cirl Bunting. Many have entered government funded agri-environment schemes which offer tailored management options for this species, such as over-winter stubbles, grass margins, wild bird seed mixes, low input grassland and managing hedges sympathetically.
Agri-environment schemes have not only been crucial for the recovery of the Cirl Bunting population, but also provide some financial support to the farmers for the management they are undertaking. In 2009, around 54.9% of the cirl bunting population were found on land under agri-environment agreements, with 99.6% of the population within 2km of an agreement, showing just how responsive these birds can be if suitable habitat is provided.
The majority of the population is still confined to the coastal fringes of South Devon, but there is now a re-introduced population of Cirl Bunting in South Cornwall, and the farmers there are enthusiastic to welcome back to their land a bird that only recently became extinct in the County. The first captive-raised juveniles from the Devon stock, were released on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall, in 2006. The area has been continuously monitored since and they’re doing well. There are now over 50 pairs here.
It’s an important project not just for Cirl Bunting. It’s the first time songbird re-introduction has been attempted in Europe so lessons we’ve learnt through this scheme may be useful in other areas.
The RSPB say the project is now in a maintenance phase. And are not planning future releases. Instead, focussing on habitat retention, creation and monitoring.
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So there you have it - my search for three of the most iconic farmland and countryside birds - hopefully now saved from near extinction.