© Marcel Burkhardt
A recovery programme for the critically endangered Ortolan Bunting is necessary. In Switzerland, this rare passerine persists in only a few places in the Valais.
The Ortolan Bunting, a long-distance migrant from the family of the buntings, is in danger of disappearing completely in Switzerland. Like in most areas of Europe, its Swiss population is declining sharply and is now limited to very few places in the Valais. The aim of the project is to restore habitats in order to provide suitable nesting sites for the Ortolan Bunting.
In the past years, we have monitored the breeding population of territorial Ortolan Buntings in the Valais and implemented conservation measures. From 2010–2015, we implemented several measures to preserve the last remaining breeding population around the town of Leuk.
The conservation measures consist of four complementary aspects: (1) annual planting of oat fields (3–5 ha/year) in the plain of the Rhone valley, (2) thinning dense bush growth and wooded areas in the rocky steppe (5 ha total), (3) grazing with local goat and sheep breeds (about 20 ha/year) and (4) one-time controlled burning of shrub growth in heavily encroached areas of the rocky steppe (3 ha total).
These conservation measures are based on scientific studies from Switzerland and Catalonia. Oat is a protein-rich crop and an important food source for Ortolan Buntings, especially in spring after their arrival from the wintering grounds in Africa. Opening the habitat through thinning, grazing and burning has positive effects on the diversity of plant and insect species and increases prey accessibility for the Ortolan Bunting. The combination of these measures aims to improve the habitat quality of the rocky steppe and to create pioneer habitats, thus generating suitable breeding sites for the Ortolan Bunting.
The occurrence of the Ortolan Bunting today is limited to the Valais. Without customised conservation measures, the Ortolan Bunting will disappear from Switzerland within a few years.
Since 2005, oat fields have been planted near local Ortolan Bunting populations. Although the crops were well used by the Ortolan Bunting, the species’ decline could not be halted. In 2009, just seven singing males were recorded, four of them in the rocky steppe around Leuk. In 2015, only a single singing male was found!
The next few years will show whether the Ortolan Bunting will disappear completely as a breeding species or whether new, small populations will form locally. As a side effect of the recovery project, the measures have had a positive effect on species diversity in the rocky steppe: The Woodlark has returned to breed, and occasionally, the song of a Tawny Pipit can be heard – two species that benefit from the open vegetation structure.