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Alarming disappearances among our familiar countryside birds

Last modified: 09 December 2013

Male yellow wagtail jumping over puddle

The beautiful yellow wagtail is one of a number of countryside birds facing significant threats

Image: Nigel Blake

The latest State of the UK's Birds report, published today, reveals many of our most familiar countryside birds are undergoing sweeping changes with some experiencing 'plummeting population declines', compared with the 1990s. 

It is now known that in some parts of the UK these birds have disappeared completely.

A section of the report looks at the UK's 107 most widespread and common breeding birds. Of these species, 16 have declined by more than one third since 1995, including the willow tit, starling, cuckoo, lapwing, whinchat and wood warbler.

Many of these species are reliant on habitats in the so-called 'wider countryside' rather than being maintained on special sites, such as nature reserves.

Of particular concern, is that the numbers of both grey partridge and turtle dove have halved since 1995. The unique British race of the yellow wagtail - a bright 'yellow-headed' version, whose population is found almost entirely in the UK - has declined by 45 per cent over the same period.

This year the alarming decline of some of the UK's most familiar countryside birds has been brought into sharp focus with the launch of the Bird Atlas 2007-11, published by the BTO last month. That mammoth mapping project covered all of the UK's breeding and wintering birds and revealed how many countryside birds are disappearing from the UK. 

For example, yellow wagtails have vanished from large areas of England and virtually disappeared from Wales, whilst the range of the turtle doves has shrunk by 34 per cent just since the previous atlas was undertaken in 1988-91.

Ebbing away

Dr Mark Eaton is an RSPB conservation scientist. Commenting on the report, he said: 'I think many of us have been shocked by how poorly some of our most familiar species are faring. 

Many of the birds we're referring to aren't rare and don't occur in remote locations. To the contrary, they are ones you used to see while walking the dog or enjoying a family picnic. 

'But over two decades many of these species have ebbed away from huge swathes of our countryside. In contrast some species, such as the red kite, have become conservation success stories as this species has returned to our countryside.'

The list of familiar countryside birds which are declining includes:

  • Willow tit, a woodland bird which has declined by 82 per cent since 1995 and its range has halved over the last two decades;
  • Turtle dove, a farmland bird with a 95 per cent decline in numbers since 1995 and a 51 per cent decline in range over the last 40 years;
  • Cuckoo, whose numbers have halved since 1995. The latest bird atlas reveals that although its range has contracted by just eight per cent over the last 40 years, though there are marked declines in abundance in the south and east of Britain;
  • Whinchat, a bird of open countryside which has declined in number by 60 per cent since 1995, and in range by 48 per cent over the last 40 years;
  • Starling, a bird of urban areas and farmland whose population has decreased by 53 per cent since 1995. The atlas reveals that its range has contracted by five per cent over the last 40 years with a steep decline in abundance in Britain, and an increase in Northern Ireland;
  • Wood warbler, a summer-visiting woodland bird, which has endured a 69 per cent decline since 1995, and a range contraction of 34 per cent since the 1970s;
  • Yellow wagtail, a bird of farmland and wetland which has experienced a 45 per cent decline in numbers since 1995. The atlas reveals that the yellow wagtail's range has contracted by 32 per cent;
  • Lapwing, a bird of farmland and wetland which has endured a 41 per cent population decline since 1995. The atlas reveals that their range has contracted by 18 per cent over the last 40 years, with the greatest losses in western Britain and Northern Ireland;
  • Snipe, a wetland bird whose breeding range has shrunk by 31 per cent over the last 40 years;
  • Grey partridge, a farmland bird whose population has declined by 53 per cent since 1995 and whose range has contracted by 40 per cent over the last 40 years;
  • Corn bunting, a farmland bird whose population has declined by 34 per cent since 1995. The atlas shows that the corn bunting's distribution has contracted by 56 per cent over the last 40 years; and the species is now extinct in Ireland.

Phil Grice is a senior environmental specialist in ornithology at Natural England. He said: 'Whilst we have made great progress with reversing the declines in many of our rarer bird species, thanks to site management and species recovery work, improving the fortunes of our 'wider countryside' birds requires us to think beyond good management of our special sites, like SSSIs. 

'Through Environmental Stewardship and initiatives like Nature Improvement Areas, we are working in close partnership with farmers and other land managers to make a difference for biodiversity across whole landscapes, allowing people to experience England's characteristic wildlife close to where they live.'

Protect and restore habitats

Colette Hall is a species monitoring officer with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. She said: 'There's worrying evidence here that the breeding ranges of many of our waders are drastically shrinking. We're losing much-loved species like snipe or lapwing completely from southern parts of England now. 

'A main cause seems to be loss of habitat due to wetlands being drained for farming or development. We need to protect and restore these habitats in order for species like these – and all wetland wildlife – to survive and prosper.'

However, the report is not all bad news. Following its reintroduction into England and Scotland and its ongoing recovery in Wales the red kite has increased in number by 676 per cent since 1995. Among songbirds, the goldfinch and the blackcap have also increased their populations since 1995 by 109 per cent and 133 per cent, respectively.

Dawn Balmer, of the British Trust for Ornithology, is the lead author on the recently-published Bird Atlas. She said: 'The latest findings from fieldwork carried out by an army of volunteers for the atlas, provides a unique opportunity to assess changes in range for all UK species over winter and the during the breeding season. 

'One of the most striking changes is for avocet which has expanded its range in the UK more than 17-fold over the last 40 years. Better monitoring of non-native species has also revealed the extent of their spread, such as a 50 per cent increase for Canada goose since 1988–91.'

32 species facing extinction

The State of the UK's Birds report also looks at how birds are faring in the UK's Overseas Territories. Although across these territories globally there are 32 species of bird facing extinction, the report delivers good news for some species, including the Ascension frigatebird and Murphy's petrel, as a result of concerted conservation action.

David Stroud of JNCC said: 'The UK's Overseas Territories contain more species of bird facing extinction than the whole of mainland Europe. Twenty-one of these species occur nowhere else in the world, so the UK has sole and total responsibility for them.'

The State of the UK's Birds 2013 report is produced by a coalition of three NGOs - the RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust – and the UK Government's statutory nature conservation bodies – Natural England (NE), Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

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The state of the UK's birds 2013 (8.9Mb)
A detailed look at the fortunes of birds throughout the UK and in its Overseas Territories.

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