Twenty-five years of dedication to saving the cirl bunting as a breeding species in Britain has been rewarded, with the threatened bird’s population topping 1,000 pairs.

Farmers in Devon and Cornwall have responded brilliantly and helped the RSPB make a giant step towards achieving conservation security for this farmland bird.

A survey this summer recorded 1,078 pairs – passing the 1,000-pair target the RSPB set when it launched the Cirl Bunting Project a quarter-century ago. By the early 1990s there were barely more than 100 pairs left in Britain, almost all confined to a narrow coastal strip of South Devon.

The project is one of the best examples anywhere of how farmers and conservation groups can work together and achieve breakthrough results; it is also shines a light on how we can achieve a better future for nature in the farmed countryside.

Nick Bruce-White, the RSPB’s South West regional director, said: “The cirl bunting’s recovery is a wonderful example of farmers and conservationists working together.

“This summer’s survey results show clearly the impact we can have when collective focus is placed on researching and implementing solutions to the loss of nature in our countryside.

“What is so satisfying about this story is how the cirl bunting has recovered thanks to the efforts of farmers. Sadly, farming and nature conservation are often unfairly portrayed as representing conflicting interests – the success of the Cirl Bunting Project is a spectacular demonstration that nothing could be further from the truth.”

The bird’s population crashed in the 1960s and 1970s because of changes to farming practice.

Research by the RSPB and others established the switch from spring to autumn-sown cereals had reduced the cirl bunting’s supply of winter food, more intensive management of grassland had dramatically cut the number of grasshoppers and other invertebrates they needed to feed their young, and modern techniques of maintaining hedgerows had reduced the amount of scrub and bushes essential for nesting and for cover.

These problems were multiplied by the bird’s sedentary nature, meaning they could only thrive where spring-sown cereals, with their characteristic stubbles, unimproved grassland and hedgerows could be found together in a small area – a happy combination still to be found on South Devon’s mixed farms.

The beginning of the cirl bunting’s recovery can be dated to 1991, when Devon farmers began to take up the Countryside Stewardship Scheme – a government programme that allowed them to earn payments for making nature-friendly choices.

Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP for the Totnes constituency – an area that can realistically claim to be the bird’s British heartland – and Species Champion for the cirl bunting, said: “Many congratulations to everyone who has worked so hard to rescue the cirl bunting from the brink.

“The financial support for protecting the habitat of cirl buntings, which has been central to the success of this project, shows the crucial importance of continuing agri-environment support following the end of the Common Agricultural Policy.”

John Holmes, Natural England’s area manager for Devon and Cornwall, said: “This really is a credit to the farmers of Devon and Cornwall. Natural England, in partnership with the RSPB, has helped support more than 140 farmers who have created and managed habitat for cirl buntings.

“This project is a great demonstration of farmers using an agri-environment scheme to make a difference for the natural environment and saving a species under threat of extinction.”

Mel Squires, South West regional director of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “Success for the cirl bunting has not been through chance but a true, committed partnership for 25 years between conservationists and farmers.

“It has been a relentless focus on delivering a combined objective where we have all wanted the same outcome – a positive and resilient future for this fantastic bird. And it’s a great example of making conservation work in tandem with a modern farming setting.”

The cirl bunting was first recorded in Britain by George Montagu in 1800 near Kingsbridge. Its population probably peaked in the 1930s when they could be found in most southern English counties and parts of Wales. At the nadir of its fortunes the bird had largely retreated to the South Devon countryside near to where Montagu first found it.

Cirl buntings are now present in an area largely tracking the coast that stretches from around the Exe estuary, in Devon, to the Rame Peninsula, in South East Cornwall.

In a further groundbreaking project, in order to better secure conservation security for the species, cirl buntings from Devon were re-introduced to the Roseland Peninsula, further west into Cornwall, between 2006 and 2011; 65 pairs were recorded there during this year’s survey. It was the first successful re-introduction of a small passerine (perching bird) in Europe.

Cath Jeffs, the RSPB’s Cirl Bunting Project manager, said: “Cirl buntings need real farmers growing real crops, and cirl-friendly farmers don’t just help these birds but many other species too. For example, more than a quarter of the farms involved in the project now have nationally important assemblages of rare plants.

“Cirls are a very special bird for the South West because this is where the story began and without a lot of hard work by a lot of people over the last 25 years, this is where it could have ended.”