|It looks like a sparrow on steroids, or a skylark that needs to go on a diet. Its best-known country name, 'fat bird of the barley', reflects its corpulent appearance and preference for arable crops. And, especially when heard at a distance, it sounds uncannily like someone shaking a bunch of keys.|
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.
But if I go to look for this bird in my home county of Somerset, I cannot find it. One is occasionally seen, each winter, on a specially planted seed crop for farmland birds. The others have, quite simply, vanished.
The reason is simple, and so obvious that even the most obtuse politician should be able to grasp it. If we treat the countryside as a food factory, with no regard for the needs of the wild creatures that live there, then we must be prepared to accept the consequences.
In this case, the consequences are that this unassuming bird – so rooted in our farming heritage that it was named after our crops – is rapidly disappearing from much of rural Britain.
What more proof do our decision-makers want that industrial farming methods are incompatible with nature? How many more studies, working parties, committees and surveys do we need? And of course the corn bunting is just one of many birds and mammals, and countless insects and wild flowers, to find that their traditional home has become a sterile, wildlife-free zone.
There is one small glimmer of hope. 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 sparrows and yellowhammers as well as corn buntings.
These farmers have shown 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. Is it too much to hope that those who make decisions about our countryside – that motley coalition of landowners, politicians and rural pressure groups – could find out how they are managing to balance nature with food production, and do the same elsewhere in rural Britain?
If they cannot do so – and soon – I fear that the corn bunting's jangling song will soon go the way of the horse-drawn plough, and become a mere footnote in our rural history. And that, in an often overused word, would be a real tragedy.