‘Far from controversial’: Corn Bunting reintroduction spoken about ‘gently’ in conservation circles

A “far from controversial” idea, the reintroduction of the Corn Bunting to Ireland is being “gently” spoken about in conservation circles. But, why?

According to BirdWatch Ireland, the Corn Bunting was once a “widespread resident in lowland agricultural areas” – that is, before it became extinct in the 1990s.

Cork tillage farmer Paul Moore is co-ordinating a report on tillage farmland and biodiversity, with part of that looking at what research has been done internationally on reintroductions of the bird.

Fat Bird Of The Barley

Moore, a member of BirdWatch Ireland for the last 40 years, tells AgriLand that the “small, Sparrow-size bird, as the name suggests, is very much a bird of cereal-growing areas”.

“One of the old names for Corn Buntings was ‘fat bird of the barley’, so its links to farmland were well-known,” he explained.

“It nests out in the crop, hence the name; it likes barley, it tends not to nest in the ditch or the hedge.

“A lot of the nests didn’t survive the harvesting, when it went from working by hand to using machines and combines.

Intensification and the changing of farming practices is causing problems all over Europe, with the population of the Corn Bunting declining.

As Moore noted, the “big spectacular birds get talked about the most when it comes to reintroductions”.

However, “it has been spoken about gently in conservation circles that maybe the Corn Bunting is one we should be looking at – a small, completely uncontroversial bird”, he continued.

“It basically needs insects in the summer and feeds on seeds in the winter – a very simple diet.

“My thinking on it was, tillage is having a tough enough time to survive commercially and to be economically viable – so it would be a great symbol of sustainability and environmental awareness.

“How good a message would it be that a species that went extinct in the 20th century could be brought back and survive in Irish tillage systems?”

‘It Is A Farmland Bird, So You Need Farmers Buying Into A Scheme Like This’

While Moore acknowledges “small things would have to be done differently” in terms of farming practices, and that with any kind of reintroduction “there’s a number of legal and technical issues to go through, a host of hoops to be jumped through”, his intention right now is just to raise the idea amongst farmers.

“Nobody is attempting to do a reintroduction. It is gently being spoken about,” he said.

“It is a farmland bird, so you need farmers buying into a scheme like this, because it would require some small changes.

But, in creating the conditions suitable for Corn Bunting, it would benefit a whole host of other species as well that would be associated with tillage farmland.

“So, you might be creating habitat or changing practices slightly, leaving winter stubble or growing cover crops or setting wild bird cover, but it ties into so much that’s in the EU’s proposed new strategies for farming.

“It’s a message that could sell around sustainability and environmental improvement if this happened. That’s a positive message for Irish arable areas and cereal growing.”

They Survived For Hundreds Of Years Here

The report Moore is co-ordinating is funded by the local LEADER group in east Cork and Irish Distillers.

“It’s not a feasibility study for a Corn Bunting reintroduction; it’s just drawing together what research has been done elsewhere,” he said.

“Obviously there would be a much bigger tillage sector in the UK than here, but there’s a lot of work going on in Scotland in reversing the decline in Corn Buntings.

Nothing terribly difficult, they survived for hundreds of years here – it was changes in farming practices that drove them out, but changing practices slightly again has the potential to bring them back.

“The Corn Bunting is completely uncontroversial. It’s the size of a Sparrow, with a pleasant kind of sound – the song is like shaking a bunch of keys. It’s a bird that farmers wouldn’t even be aware of on their farm,” Moore concluded.

‘We must handsomely incentivise farmers to protect species’

Oonagh Duggan, head of advocacy at BirdWatch Ireland feels that “sectoral policies in agriculture, forestry and fisheries are liquidating wildlife populations and ecosystems in Ireland”.

Last week, the National Biodiversity Forum released a report auditing the progress made on the National Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-2021.

The review shows that “limited progress has been achieved in actions to stop the decline of biodiversity in Ireland”.

BirdWatch Ireland said: “The environmental indicators still show a very disturbing picture of losses and declining trends.

Two-thirds of wild bird species are red or amber listed birds of conservation concern; one-third of wild bee species are threatened with extinction; and 85% of internationally important habitats are ‘unfavourable’ – limiting the benefits that people can also derive from them, such as carbon sequestration.

Oonagh Duggan said “we must handsomely incentivise farmers and fishers to protect and restore ecosystems and species”.

“They are crucial actors in this regard and without them, efforts are doomed,” she said. “The years 2020 to 2030 is the decade of action to restore nature.”