Husband and wife duo commended for role in reviving rare bird species at Pebblebed Heaths

PUBLISHED: 10:54 03 June 2019 | UPDATED: 09:20 06 June 2019

Doug and Joan Cullen, Pebblebed Heath volunteers at the grazing marsh they helped create next to the River Otter near Budleigh Salterton. Picture: Guy Newman/Rekord Media

Doug and Joan Cullen, Pebblebed Heath volunteers at the grazing marsh they helped create next to the River Otter near Budleigh Salterton. Picture: Guy Newman/Rekord Media

© Guy Newman

A duo have been commended for their dedication as River Otter bird wardens for almost 30 years and the role they've played in reviving a rare species.

Husband and wife Doug and Joan Cullen have volunteered for the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust since they moved to East Devon from London in 1990.

The Trust was set up by landowner Clinton Devon Estates in 2006 to manage the heathland and conserve the surrounding landscape, including the River Otter Estuary.

In addition to monitoring bird numbers on the Otter Estuary and advising on additional habitat creation work on the adjacent wetland meadows, the couple's work has included influencing habitat management around Stantyway Farm in Otterton for cirl buntings, a rare farmland bird.

The population of the species had declined so much, due to the intensification of farming and loss of habitat, that by 1989 the RSPB estimated that there were just 118 pairs remaining in the whole of Britain, confined only to South Devon.

After the couple spotted a pair near the farm around 10 years ago, they instigated a collaborative effort with the then tenant Martin Williams, Cath Jeffs, Cirl Bunting Project Manager and Deborah Deveney, Cirl Bunting Project Officer for the RSPB and Dr Sam Bridgewater, head of wildlife and conservation for Clinton Devon Estates, owners of the farm, to improve their chances of survival.

At the time, the birds hadn't been seen this side of the River Exe Estuary in at least 20 years, but the couple's most recent count in January put the cirl bunting population in Otterton at 28, with another pair spotted over near Sidmouth.

Dr Bridgewater, said: "Doug and Joan have played a significant role in improving the future prospects of the cirl buntings in Devon and the species as a whole.

"We are most grateful to both of them for being our eyes and ears along the Lower Otter Estuary for almost 30 years -their enthusiasm and dedication has had a direct impact on bird populations there.

The collective's efforts have been continued and expanded by farmers Sam and Nell Walker who took over the tenancy of Stantyway Farm, a 264-acre arable farm which was certified organic last year, when Mr Williams retired.

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