UK bird survey shows farmland birds are declining

The UK's largest bird survey has shown that between 1994 and 1998 more bird species increased than decreased, but farmland birds are suffering from the effects of intensive farming practices.

The Breeding Birds Survey collected information on population levels for about 100 species of birds by surveying approximately 2,300km². Data from the survey will be used by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions to help calculate the overall Quality of Life Set for the UK.

“What worries me the most is that those birds that have shown significant decreases between 1994 and 1998 are the same ones that suffered decreases through the 70s and later,” Chris Harbard of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) told edie.

Harbard believes that intensive farming practices, particularly in arable farmland, is the single biggest factor in the declining numbers of farmland birds. And since farmland represents the largest habitat for birds in the UK, the RSPB is campaigning for changes to agricultural policy and practice in the UK and Europe.

“In fifty years, it could be that the only place you’re going to see Skylarks, for instance, will be at nature reserves or on non-agriculture land,” said Harbard.

The survey is the result of work undertaken by hundreds of volunteers and has been organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and the RSPB.

The following species surveyed in areas at least as large as 50 km² have experienced population growth between 1994 and 1998:

  • Buzzard – 22%
  • Whitethroat – 14%
  • Red Grouse – 28%
  • Chiffchaff – 32%
  • Red-legged Partridge – 19%
  • Willow warbler – 25%
  • Green Woodpecker – 17%
  • Coal Tit – 22%
  • Pied Wagtail – 13%
  • Great Tit – 14%
  • Wheatear – 45%
  • Nuthatch – 30%
  • Redstart – 42%

But not all the Breeding Birds Survey news is good news. Some birds have shown decreasing populations. They are:

  • Kestrel – 18%
  • Starling – 13%
  • Curlew – 12%
  • House Sparrow – 7%
  • Swift – 13%
  • Linnet – 10%
  • Skylark – 5%
  • Bullfinch – 27%
  • Spotted Flycatcher – 23%
  • Yellowhammer – 16%
  • Lesser Whitethroat – 36%
  • Corn Bunting – 42%
  • Jay – 17%

“If you take away the woodland bird species from the survey there is a serious decline in populations,” said Harbard. “That’s why we’re trying to influence agricultural policy. If we could remove the subsidies that encourage damage to the environment and replace them with subsidies that reward farmers for environmentally-friendly practices then we would see improvements in bird populations.”

The Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) does operate several programmes to encourage environmentally-friendly farming practices (see related story), including the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and the Farm Set Aside programme, but these remain small and comparatively poorly-funded subsidies. Harbard says that environmental concerns are still seen as a luxury by many farmers and policy makers.

The Breeding Birds Survey results have been broken down to show specific Scottish and Welsh bird population trends. In future, the annual survey will provide separate results for England and Northern Ireland, too.

For bird species counted in at least 50km², in Scotland 14 species increased while 5 declined. In Wales, 5 species increased and 2 declined.

BTO is calling for more volunteers to expand coverage, with a particular need for volunteers in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and northern and western-most areas of England.

The Breeding Birds Survey replaces the Common Birds Census (CBC), which was largely restricted to farmland and woodland habitats. The habitat breakdown for these first set of results from the Breeding Birds Survey are:

  • 54% farmland
  • 16% built-up areas
  • 12% woodland
  • 5% heath or bog

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