Above: Cirl bunting are making a comeback on the south Devon cliffs. Photo: Andy Hay


NUMBERS OF RARE cirl buntings (Emberiza cirlus) on the Devon coast have quadrupled at the RSPB Labrador Bay reserve since the charity started borrowing Dartmoor ponies to graze the land.

Each winter since 2009/2010, Dartmoor farmers Margaret Rogers and Michael Lamb have selected suitable ponies to graze the steep, flower-rich site, to keep bracken and scrub at bay, so benefitting the plants and, it seems, the buntings.

The birds were in national decline when land management changes led to loss of feeding and nesting sites. Numbers dropped to fewer than 120 pairs. The RSPB bought the site to help secure the future of the cirl buntings, whose UK population is found almost exclusively in south Devon. The reserve is also home to peregrines, buzzards and yellowhammers (Emberiza citrinella).

A special recoveries project saw numbers hit a milestone of 1,000 pairs in 2016. Cath Jeffs of the RSPB said: “At Labrador Bay, we have seen numbers increase from three pairs before purchase in 2008 to almost 30 pairs now. The Labrador Bay reserve has played a major part in the recovery and is a wonderful place for people to experience these still-rare birds.”

A partnership of the RSPB, Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust and farmers Margaret and Michael has made the successful grazing scheme possible. The ponies are turned out to graze from January to May, creating the perfect conditions for insect-rich grassland, a perfect hunting ground for cirl buntings to find prey to feed their chicks.

Ms Jeffs added: “It seems fitting that these two iconic – but endangered – Devon species should be helping each other to thrive.”

For more news from Cage & Aviary Birds, click here.