Where are we in the league?

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Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

Where are we in the league?

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My local football team, the mighty Rushden and Diamonds is currently 8th in the Blue Square Premier League - that's 8th out of 24 teams.

Seeing your performance in the context of others is always informative and sometimes really useful. 

So did you know that the UK is 4th place in the EU (out of 27) for the highest rate of income tax? and 12th, out of 15, EU countries in the proportion of our energy coming from renewable sources? and top of the EU cocaine using league? and top of the EU asthma suffering league? and we were 8th in the EU days lost to strikes league table back in 2006.  This gets a bit addictive!

In terms of farmland bird population changes, the UK is 11th worst out of 40 European countries over the period 1990-2000.  And we were even closer to the bottom, as I remember it, in a previous analysis which covered the period 1980-1990. 

Farmland birds declined in most European countries (but increased in just a few) and I wonder what we can learn, maybe nothing, in terms of how the league leaders, Austria, practise their farming?  In Austria, farmland birds did pretty well apparently.  And Austria is top of the league, it seems, and if you ignore Liechtenstein (which we all do!), in terms of organic agriculture.  It can't be that simple can it?



  • Q1 - The more I hear about the definitive list of farmland birds the less definitive and arbitrary it becomes. I think someone at DEFRA needs to sit down and work out proper criteria as to what defines a farmland bird rather than the farce we have at the moment of different lists with different species decided by different opinions none of which have much robust science behind them. Quite how the barn swallow isn't on Gibbons list but the starling is, completely eludes me. The notion of native and non native is starting to lose any scientific validity. The idea that the hare is not a native species of britain because it was introduced 4000 years ago by iron age man rather than arriving under its own steam shows what nonsense it is. You also appear to be saying some of the species on Gibbons farmland list are excluded because they are not characteristic of farmland. IN other words Gibbons list is a bad place to start from.

    Q2 - if you stick with your original base line of 1990 rather than suddenly going to 1995, then the magpie shows a small increase and, of course, if we chose 1970 rather than 1990 we see a trebling of magpie numbers. As you know DEFRA choose 1970 as their base line for the BFI. More dates plcuked out of the air.

    Q3 - The league you have made up isn't just  of different teams with different players, its got different sports in it aswell, somehow the Austrian netball team has beaten our cricketers.

    Sooty, I agree 100%, what Mark cannot explain is how you he attributes wildlife loss in the last twenty years to the 'intensification of agriculture' when there has been no intensification of agriculture since 1990, quite the reverse.

  • Sooty,  Just to widen the issue slightly it is not just birds that are allegedly affected by agricultural changes.

    Butterfly Conservation have just released figures that show that 17 species of butterfly throughout Europe have declined by 70%.  They do lay the blame at changing agricultural practices.  They say "The underlying forces behind the losses are rapid economic and social changes, which have led to the intensification of better land and the abandonment of land with poorer soils and in remote locations. Abandonment is thought to be the most serious cause of losses in mountain regions and eastern Europe, while lowland areas have suffered most from intensification".

    If these figures are correct I would worry about them more than bird numbers.  Bird numbers may indicate an outcome but the decline in insects may well show a cause.

  • All this from yourself and essex  peasant(not a very accurate name for the latter i think)is very interesting but what i find annoying is that most people put the reason for less farmland birds completely down to farmers and that is definitely not the case as there must be several other substantial reasons.One instance being House Sparrow numbers collapsed and farmers cannot be blamed for hardly any in the middle of London and woodland birds apparently declined more than farmland birds.

    These people who continually blame farmers unfairly are doing no one or birds any good and need to look at all the reasons.

    We all know that modern farming puts pressure on all sorts of wildlife but the ridiculous part is that from some people who comment on RSPB forum pay in effect the RSPB sub to do things for birds but object to money going to farmers for exactly the same thing,how unfair and crazy is that.

  • essex peasant:

    Q1 - try p479, and it's helpfully under 'farmland'.  You will see that there are 28 species, so to anticipate your next question, where did some of them go and why aren't they on the FBI?  Was it a fix?  Red-legged partridge and little owl were excluded on the grounds that they are not native UK species.  The others (hobby, quail, Montagu's harrier, corncrake, stone curlew and cirl bunting) were excluded because they are rare species and not chatracteristic of farmland and indeed many of them did not have annual counts of numbers so could not participate in an annual index.

    Q2 - your point, it's still near the top of these comments, was that one could influence the results by including increasing species - and you mentioned the magpie.  I'm just pointing out that the magpie has declined in the UK since 1995 (although only by 3%).

    Q3 - not at all.  Farmland in different parts of the the continent of Europe has different farmland species - hardly surprising - you wouldn't expect that farmland birds in the USA would be the same as in the UK, nor should you assume that farmland birds in Hungary are the same as in the UK.  The paper cited looks at all farmland birds in all countries but we can't look at bee-eaters, sandgrouse, shrikes, storks etc in the UK because there aren't any.  So it's more like different teams with different players but we are playing a pretty poor game - unless the aim is to get rid of wildlife from our countryside.

  • Dr Avery

    Q1 - can't find it in sections at the back - amazed you havent got a book you know all about.

    Q2 - I said if you included the Magpie, which is included in the Birdlife international FBI index, in the 1990-2000 figure it would alter the data. You have suddently dragged up the BBS report with 1995 up as a base year. Why? We have the 1990 figures. - pay attention please!

    Q3 - so actually we are not comparing apples with apples, your starting point in this thread about Britain being towards the bottom of some league has no scientific veracity whatsover, it would be the equivalent of saying Leichtensteins top team are better than Arsenal because they beat Vaduz United whereas Arsenal only managed a draw with Chelsea - pay attention please!  

  • Essex peasant - I admire the humble seeker after truth so I will try to answer your questions.  But I'm not going to spend too much of my time dealing with your ever more detailed questions - be warned!

    Question 3 - haven't got the book with me so you'll have to wait - maybe for some time. It's in the sections at the back and is simply a list of farmland species (as far as I can remember) but I realise that isn't much help.  The important point is that it was constructed before the FBI (which is in no way infamous) was ever thought of.  So your usual point - I have heard you say it - that the FBI has an odd bunch of species in it is not because someone deliberately picked a peculiar list of species.  And, of course, any such list is imperfect but I don't think there is much wrong with this list.

    Question 2 - I am being perfectly clear and explicit about my dates - pay attention please!  The paper referred to on European birds (and to which I provided the link so there is nothing to hide) dealt with the period 1990-2000.  So that's what I said.  The latest BBS report covers the period 2008-2009 but has the data from the beginning of the BBS which was in 1995.  I gave the figures from 1995-2008 because those are all helpfully tabulated in that report.  Nothing muddled - just two different studies.

    Question 1 - the main difference, having had a quick look at the list of 58 European farmland species is that the list simply contains a lot of species which are fairly widespread across the continent of Europe but do not occur in the UK!  So there is not much point in including great bustard (although they are being reintroduced into the UK), calandra lark, bee-eater, white stork, lesser kestrels, sandgrouse, shrikes etc.  That looks like the main difference.  In addition, the list of 58 contains some species (not many) which are found in the UK but whose numbers are not very accurately monitored every year (barn owl is an example - and was initially included in the FBI list but taken out when it was realised the data weren't that great) or which are very restricted in range (eg corncrake).  The aim for the FBI was to describe the trends of widespread farmland species as a group, so that all makes sense.  And then there are a few species which might have been included but weren't in the FBI such as stonechat and meadow pipit.

  • Mark,

    three questions

    I. The paper says it looked at 58 farmland species. The infamous FBI only uses 19. I can't get beyond the paper precis without forking out for it, can you let me know which 58 species these authors consider farmland?

    2. You are muddling your dates, are we talking since 1995 or 1990 as the base year?

    3. At great expense I have obtained the last Breeding bird atlas. Can you tell me on what pages we have the data that identifies the 19 species on the FBI as the 19 species most dependent on farmland? Personally I can't see it, so you are wrong to say I know how it was compiled and I don't think the NFU have seen this data. To say the science is confused, given we now have 58 species identified as farmland spcies, is an understatment.



  • Sooty

    the reason I was criticising farmers is because this blog was about farmland birds and how badly we as a country have  conserved farmland birds in relation to the rest of europe.


  • Essex peasant and Matthew Naylor - if you follow the link to the paper about which this blog was written you will see the list of species which it covered and it doesn't include the magpie.  

    And Essex peasant is well aware of how the UK farmland bird list was produced.  Just to remind him and maybe to inform others - it is based on a list of farmland birds which is in the last breeding bird atlas for the UK and Ireland and was published long before the FBI was thought of.  So it uses what can be seen as a handy, off-the-shelf, already-existing, science-based list of farmland birds.  And as essex peasant is also aware, if you fiddle about with the species a bit it doesn't make much difference to the overall results - the NFU have been in workshops when all this has been discussed and agreed.   And the list includes many increasing species - including wood pigeon (35% increase 1995-2008) ande jackdaw (36% increase over same period).  And tree sparrows have gone up in that same period too - not quite as much as they went down in the period before, but a very welcome reversal of trend.

    And, essex peasant, take a look at the latest BBS report and you will see that if magpie were incuded in the FBI then it would go down a little bit more!  Magpie numbers, again since 1995 (and up to 2008) decreased by a very small amount over the UK as a whole - 3%.  In contrast, of course, species like the lapwing (have decreased by 13% and the skylark by 11% in that same period (1995-2008).  Their major declines happened earlier - but they aren't recovering in numbers yet.

  • Essex Peasant has made a valuable point about the inclusion of additional, predatory species in other European surveys.  I look forward to hearing your response, Mark.

  • Mirlo,but you only ever comment about farmers damaging wildlife would respect you much more if you complained about all the other causes of less wildlife of which there are probably dozens if not hundreds such as to name some of the culprits,aircraft,all vehicles,heavy industry several of which i bet you are guilty of like the rest of us and none of these do anything for wildlife to my knowledge whereas as essex peasant points out lots of farmers do lots for wildlife.

    You definitely have a downer on farmers as a practice and unless you criticise other things that damage wildlife it is obscene and obviously farmers must have done something of a personal nature to you and/or your family to make you so obsessive,lets hear you go on about all the other contributors to less wildlife,do you not think all that pollution from other things has no effect.      

  • Essex peasant I acknowledge that you are a wildlife enthusiast  and carry out positive work on your farm which benefits wildlife. You deserve to be proud of what you achieve. I was talking about the area around where I live and where now there are NO lapwings and curlew breeding and few hedgerow birds.

    We have a rather wet climate in cumbria and farmers are gradually tending towards less grazing by cattle in order to reduce poaching of their fields. Two farms near to me have taken this route, although zero grazing is perhaps not the correct description because the younger animals  are allowed outside until they are ready for milk production. There is another farm not too far from where I live on which the farmer is holding many times more dairy cattle than the farm is capable of supporting. this farmer is buying silage crop from anywhere up to 15 miles distant.

    The farms I am concerned about are the ones where the farmers are not in the slightest bit interested in the welfare of any wildlife. I am pretty well certain that these form a large proportion of the total. And Essex peasant if you come to this area in summer I can take you to numerous farms where you will not see a single butterfly ! Last year in July I did a 35 mile bike ride on small country roads and lanes and never saw one butterfly until I arrived at a local nature reserve where there were many. What does this tell you?.

  • Sooty

    I do not hate farmers. I do hate what they have done to our wildlife.

  • Mirlo,

    as someone who grazes his dairy cows, as do 99% of british dairy farmers, I'm delighted to hear you only want to buy milk from farms who graze their cows - with respect, I think you are a bit distracted with what the media are reporting at the moment.

    We also monitor the breeding bird species and wintering bird species on our farm ( and mammals, butterflies and moths). We reckon we have about 130 different bird species in all. While we have seen decreases in species such as Lapwing since the 1980s ( although they have bounced back in the last ten years), we have seen increases in other species such as heron and brent goose. This is reflected in national figures. So it is a bit silly to suggest modern farms are some sort of wildlife desert. On this farm , some species have gone down but just as many have increased - and again this is reflected in the national figires.You are cordially invited to come to my farm and see for yourself, I am very proud of what I produce and what wildlife I share my farm with - and actually I don't expect to be paid for it, for instance at this very moment I am letting brent geese and whooper swans graze my wheat, the brent goose was close to extinction in the 1950s, today its UK and world population have increased a hundred fold. I don't get paid a penny for letting brent geese graze my wheat.

  • Well mirlo paying farmers to keep numbers of farmland bird numbers up is sustainable as long as you keep doing it and why should it be any different as the RSPB would not be sustainable without the public's money.

    Whoever told you farmers believe they have a god given right to destroy plants and animals you seem to have a serious hate of farmers.

    98% of public do not want farmers to go back 100 years and you wishing it will not make it happen you will have to learn to get the best from modern farming,i just know you would not go back to living as they did 100 years ago.Do not think Jamie Oliver did much for wildlife in his campaign as free range poultry probably means less insects for birds and organic sales taken a nosedive recently in hard times.