National Trust Animal Ecologist, Peter Brash, responds to the results of the annual Breeding Bird Survey.
A press announcement last week chimed loudly with me. Built on data drawn up by BTO volunteers in their annual Breeding Bird Survey, the latest State of the UK’s Birds report made for familiar but mostly grim reading. There was a resonance with me for two reasons. Firstly, many of the alarming trends use 1970 (the year of my birth) as a baseline. Secondly, when I started birdwatching at age ten almost all of the sharply declining species could be found breeding within two miles of my suburban home. This is the tragedy, these are not obscure rarities lamented only by experts, this is our avian heritage. Once common and everyday species could be hurtling towards extinction.
|Species||Long term trend % (1970-2011)||BBS Trend %
|Great spotted woodpecker||365||139|
|Lesser spotted woodpecker||-80||n/a|
Table 1: Increasing or stable and decreasing common breeding birds, for some species (n/a) data is not available or not comparable between different monitoring schemes.
These birds that were once familiar throughout the landscape are becoming rarer by the year; some like whinchat have already largely disappeared from lowland England. Turtle dove and yellow wagtail were in steep decline in the west by the 1990s and are seemingly in a tailspin in their eastern retreats too. Woodland specialists willow tit and lesser-spotted woodpecker are disappearing rapidly and starlings, once the scourge of the bird table, are in need of special measures.
But what of success stories? Are there any silver linings amongst the gloom? Thankfully, the answer is yes. Red kites are back in English and Scottish skies after reintroduction and benefit from a more enlightened attitude in their Welsh heartland. Those making lazy and ill thought out analogies between songbird declines and birds of prey should be silenced by the news that sparrowhawks are no longer on the rise. After three decades of growth from their pesticide and persecution driven nadir of the 1960s, these dashing raptors are now flat-lining. Nuthatches and great-spotted woodpeckers are flourishing. Chiffchaff and blackcap are doing very well and those favourites of garden bird feeders, goldfinch and siskin are becoming more common too.
So what can be done? Nature reserves are great places and we’ve had huge success in saving species in them. Getting many of our declining species back is going to need a much broader brush approach though. Agri-environment schemes seem to have little effect when they are unambitious or restricted only to the margins of farmland. The kind of special schemes that have helped cirl buntings make a sevenfold increase in Devon and Cornwall are what we need. If partridges and turtle doves are going to be a real part of the British countryside rather than something we only sing about at Christmas, then we need change and we need action.