This week, NatureScot’s Helen Taylor tells us about the work going on protect one of Scotland’s best-known farmland birds – the corn bunting.
Farmers do an important job making sure we are all fed – but they also have an important role in providing homes for some of Scotland’s wildlife. With agricultural land making up about 80% of Scotland, our wildlife lives alongside farming.
One species which relies heavily on finding food and nest sites on our farms is the corn bunting. This small brown bird is a Red List species in the UK. Its numbers have tumbled, not just in Scotland but across large areas of Europe. The Scottish population is now restricted to coastal Fife and Angus, North East Scotland with remnants in the Borders and Western Isles. It is estimated that only 750 to 900 singing males are left here.
Corn buntings nest relatively late; on average, they lay their first eggs in the middle of June. This means that they have suffered as a result of the trend for silage-making rather than hay, as the earlier mowing means nests and chicks are very vulnerable.
Over the years, environment schemes for farmers, like the current Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS), have helped farmers manage their land to benefit nature, including committing £1.74m in AECS funding to date. Measures to help corn buntings include safeguarding nesting sites with no mowing, grazing or harrowing of fields between 1 May and 1 August, and providing feeding areas in fields, such as weedy fodder crops, seed-rich cereal stubbles and grain or hay, which are particularly valuable sources of winter food for the corn buntings. Where this has been deployed effectively, populations have responded. In Fife, farmers have been successful in reversing the decline as the result of well targeted management supported by specialist advice.
This year, a new £38,000 corn bunting project involving nine farmers, with eight in Aberdeenshire and one in the Scottish Borders, has continued the work to protect these special wee buntings.
Under the current AECS scheme, there were several farmers whose payments for supporting buntings ended in 2019 and there was a gap before further funding becomes available. As corn buntings are a nationally vulnerable species, both NatureScot and the farmers were keen to ensure that this positive work continued, so we have entered into agreements with the farmers. This will give the corn buntings the best chance of successfully rearing their chicks and surviving over the winter.
It’s work the farmers involved are rightly proud of. Cameron Ewen, who farms at Meikle Toux, is one of the farmers involved in the project. He says supporting wildlife on the farm is something he’s been interested in for a long time and he jokes that he has a bit of ‘green tinge’ about him. Another Aberdeenshire farmer taking part, James Fowlie, added that he didn’t know that the area where he farmed was so important for corn buntings and as conservationists at heart, they were very happy to help out.
This project is part of a package of support for corn buntings in Scotland. The funds will secure safe nesting habitat by compensating farmers to delay cutting of grass crops and by creating seed and insect rich feeding areas. Funding for corn buntings has also been provided through AECS, the Biodiversity Challenge Fund and through RSPB Scotland’s corn bunting work.