On the downs between Wilmington and Hextable, a small population of perhaps five or more pairs of corn buntings nest in the barley fields and feed in the boundaries and weedy fallow fields; strips of which are periodically turned into immaculately tilled and planted rows of spring onions and garlic.
Males sit on the barley ears and sing their insistent ‘jangling of keys’. Working out territories and pairs is difficult and confounded by the fact that polygyny is quite common; the reasons for this mating system are not entirely clear. The nest is a deep cup of weaved grasses suspended at the bottom of the crop. Linnets pass by in pairs giving their lilting calls and skylarks rise in loose flocks from the fallows where they hide in plain sight. On a sunny evening with a warm breeze, the pastoral scene is peaceful but also tinged with foreboding; the barley ears dropped a week or so ago and the harvest is therefore imminent.
The combining starts the next day; two huge harvesters supported by tractors and trailers cut hundreds of acres in a few hours. The nests of the buntings are shredded and the last brood nests of the skylarks exposed; the opportunist crows, gulls and buzzards work the fields and the easy pickings. The adults sit on the last of the crop with a noisy band of house sparrows and then adjourn to the tops of adjacent hedges. The dust cloud blows from the north west and coats everything in a sad confetti.
The declines in many farmland bird populations since arable agriculture intensified from the 1960s onward is well documented; the loss of broods of species that nest in the fields during the July harvest is one obvious cause. Linnets and yellowhammers are luckier as they nest within or beneath the hedges and so miss the cut; even so their numbers have also declined so the changes in food supply and probably the loss of winter stubbles are also a likely factor. Conservation solutions have been found in Scotland, where delays in the cutting of grasslands has permitted the survival of corn bunting broods and halted declines. Such measures won’t help the remnant populations in autumn-sown cereal crops such as this one on the edge of Kent.
In 1986, a Montagu’s harrier nest in a similarly large field on the downs above Blewbury in Oxfordshire was spared from similar destruction by pegging out and retaining a small square of the cereal crop. Corn buntings are not nearly as rare as harriers although heading that way. Soon, perhaps, they will be considered worthy of the same effort. Corn buntings nest through to August, so it will be interesting to see if breeding gets underway again, presumably with nests in the strips of tall grasslands within the field boundaries as this is the only breeding habitat remaining now.