Farmland bird numbers in England fall to record low
Bird numbers plunge to 44-year low after dramatic habitat loss and harsh winter
Populations of breeding birds on farmland in England are at their lowest levels since formal attempts to monitor them began in 1966, the government said today. The figures suggest overall populations have fallen by more than half in the past 44 years.Although the most recent annual decline of 5% might be down to a cold winter and recent changes to farming practice, experts believe the long-term trends caused by continuing pressure on habitats mean most of the 19 species surveyed are in trouble. Figures for the last five years suggest a 10% decline and since the most recent ones are based on 2009 observations, the cold 2010 winter weather may bring further bad news next year.
The significant falls last year included kestrels (down 27%) lapwings (12%), grey partridge (23%), skylarks (5%) and starlings (20%). Relatively small percentage falls may still have huge impact because of low numbers in the first place.
The figures for England are based on the annual breeding birds survey by the British Trust for Ornithology, in which volunteers check 3,200 randomly selected 1km squares around the UK twice each year. But other data is included in the index published by environment department Defra, which makes figures for species decline slightly different. These figures are not yet online.
Twelve of the 19 species monitored had falling populations. The 2009 index is the first since the European Union stopped ordering crop farmers not to use part of their land for agriculture, a measure first introduced in the 1990s to stop over-production but suspended because of high grain prices. Although UK farmers are still encouraged to seek subsidies to "green" their land through the UK's entry and higher level environmental stewardship schemes, there are fears these may fall victim to the looming austerity cuts.David Noble, a principal ecologist with the trust, said the latest index published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), "shows that two-thirds of farmland bird species are continuing to decline, and although the latest drop may be in part due to a relatively harsh winter in 2008-09, there is certainly no evidence yet that (farming) initiatives such as environmental stewardship have succceded in reversing national population declines."
Mark Avery, director of conservation at the RSPB, said: "It's difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions from a short one-year time span, but this certainly makes for some depressing reading."The winter before last had been " a moderately cold one" which could have impacted on birds' ability to find food. The loss of set-aside had also removed valuable foraging and nesting habitats for wild birds, he said.
"Lapwings … are particularly vulnerable and their populations have been steadily falling for more than 30 years, so a decline of 12% in one year across England is really bad news."
Cuts in evironmental stewardship could be "disastrous", he warned, even though some schemes were not working as well as they should. The charity is meeting government experts to discuss the problem tomorrow.
A Defra spokesman said: "We are looking into the reasons for this and working with farmers through environmental stewardship schemes that encourage them to do all they can to support birdlife on their farms."
On Monday Defra launched a discussion paper that will lead to a white paper on the natural environment in spring 2011. "We encourage anyone with a view on how we can improve our wildlife to contribute their ideas.'