Guest blog by Dr Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.

The annual Wild Bird Indicators for the UK and England, produced by the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) under contract to Defra, were published yesterday (29 October 2015) in the Defra Wild Bird Populations National Statistics Release.

What are the wild bird indicators?

The indicators measure change in populations of a range of species, using 1970 as the baseline year. The indicators are an important measure of the successful role the conservation community and Government play in helping the UK's birds.

This latest publication updates the indicators for breeding birds of farmland, woodland, water and wetlands, seabirds and all species, and for wintering waterbirds, using data up to 2014. The headline indicator of this publication is the ¬ĎAll Species¬í indicator, which shows trends in population size of 128 species of bird that are native to, and breed in, the UK.

Chart showing farmland, woodland, wetland, seabird and all species indicators.

These indicators are an important element of the UK's Biodiversity Indicators, used to assess progress towards Government conservation and environmental goals.

Each indicator shows the average trend calculated across populations of relevant species, such as the 19 widespread birds in the farmland bird indicator. For most of these (seabirds being the exception) both 'unsmoothed' and 'smoothed' versions are produced. The unsmoothed versions (the dashed lines on the figure) give the values which should be used and reported, whereas the smoothed versions (smooth lines) provide a useful way of seeing underlying trends and are intended to be used for formal statistical assessments of changes.

Short-term bounce in numbers of breeding species this year due to better weather

Year-on-year we report depressing news on further declines in these indicators, and the underlying trends. However, this year we are pleased to report that the unsmoothed trends increased between 2013 and 2014 for every breeding bird indicator. Following poor weather in the 2012, breeding conditions were considerably better for many species in 2013 and this, coupled with a relatively mild 2013/14 winter, appears to have been responsible for a short-term bounce in numbers of many breeding species.

Indicators are still showing longer-term downwards trends

Despite the welcome upturns shown between 2013 and 2014, all the indicators are still showing longer-term downward trends. The smoothed lines, designed to reveal underlying trends, are at their lowest-ever level for the farmland, woodlands, wetlands and all species indicators.

  • The farmland bird indicator has fallen by 11% over the last five years and is now down by 54% on its 1970 level.
  • Woodland birds have remained broadly stable in recent years and showed a considerable increase since 2013, but remain down by 20% overall.
  • Water and wetland birds are a growing concern, with the underlying smoothed trend having fallen by 12% in five years. They are now 15% down on their 1975 start point.
  • The underlying smoothed trend shows that the seabird indicator has declined by 9% in five years, although it did show a considerable jump between 2013 and 2014; regardless, it has fallen by 21% since its 1986 start point.
  • Due to massive increases in the 1980s and 90s the wintering waterbird indicator remains nearly double of its starting level, but even that has shown recent declines and has now reached its lowest level for nearly 25 years.

To find out more read the Wild Bird Populations in the UK report and the Wild Bird Populations in England report.