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State of the UKs birds

Last modified: 23 November 2012

Robin and goldfinch on feeder

Image: Nigel Blake

Since 1966, we’ve lost 44 million individual birds from our countryside at an average rate of 19 birds every 10 minutes, say a group of conservation organisations in a report published today (Monday 19 November, 2012).

These shocking statistics are contained in the State of the UK’s Birds 2012 report published today, charting the ups and downs of our bird populations over the last few decades.

The scientists producing the report estimate there are 166 million nesting birds in the UK, compared with 210 million nesting birds in 1966.

The house sparrow has seen one of the greatest losses of any bird in the UK. Although since 2000 house sparrow numbers have started to increase, the UK still has 20 million fewer sparrows than it did in 1966. The current population is estimated at around 10 million.

Dr Mark Eaton is an RSPB scientist who worked on the report. Commenting on the figures, he said: “It is shocking to think that we’ve lost one in five of the individual birds that we had in the 1960s, especially when you think that the 44 million birds we have lost since 1966 is equivalent to the current adult human population of England and Wales.”

There have been many changes in the UK which have affected birds, most notably changes in the land use and the management of our land and seas – these can change the amount or quality of key resources needed by birds, such as suitable places to nest or a shortage of food in summer or winter. However, for some species, including the house sparrow, the precise reasons behind these declines aren’t fully understood.

The changing fortunes of two, related species highlight the changes to the UK’s birds: the turtle dove and the collared dove. In 1966, turtle doves and collared doves were both thought to number around 140,000 pairs in the UK: the turtle dove was still a widespread bird and the population of the collared dove – which first nested in the UK in 1955 – were building up. Today, there are only thought to be around 29,000 pairs of turtle dove nesting in the UK, whereas the collared dove has increased to just under a million pairs.

Cold weather can have a startling effect on bird numbers too. The wren – still the UK’s most numerous bird – has lost an average of 835 individuals a day since 2000.

Diane Stevenson, Acting Director of Natural Heritage for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, said: “The State of the UK’s Birds report is an excellent example of a long-term partnership between Government and volunteers which provides high quality information on the state of biodiversity. Most of the information upon which the report is based is derived from the efforts of a large number of dedicated skilled, volunteer ornithologists who contribute to national monitoring schemes like the Breeding Birds Survey and Wetland Birds Survey. This high quality evidence base is important in directing government, conservation organisations and land managers in their joint efforts to conserve biodiversity in general and bird populations in particular.”

Other elements of the 40-page report include:

·                The latest information on the number of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds spending the winter in the UK.

·                An update on the internationally-important birds, including albatrosses and penguins, on the UK’s overseas territories.

David Stroud, of JNCC, said: “This report highlights the value of undertaking a periodic ‘stock-check’ of bird numbers in the UK – information central to many aspects of conservation.  Thanks to the efforts of the bird watching community, such assessments are readily available within the UK, but these data do not exist for most of our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies.  We need to strengthen efforts to establish routine survey and monitoring in these areas in the light of their global importance for many bird species.”

The State of the UK’s Birds 2012 report is produced by a coalition of three NGOs - RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust – and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation agencies - the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Natural England (NE), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. (JNCC).


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