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British Birds and Biodiversity

As with all wildlife the population of birds in Britain is dynamic and fluctuates in response to factors such as climate change, habitat loss, changes in farming patterns, predation and active conservation schemes. Apart from being a subject of interest in its own right to many, the status of the British bird population is a useful indicator of bio-diversity and the ecological state of the nation.

Bird populations in the UK are logged and monitored in studies and reports such as the RSPB's annual Big Garden Birdwatch, which collates the observations of ordinary members of the public. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has its own 'Wild Bird Population Index' as a part of its ongoing efforts to monitor UK bio-diversity. The State of the UK's Birds is an authoritative report published jointly by the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust. This report is particularly useful as it classifies UK species by colour according to their conservation status. It lists 40 species as Red (highest cause for concern) 121 Amber and 86 green.

Urban and Garden Birds

Chaffinch

The Big Garden Birdwatch provides a snapshot of the types of birds that most frequently visit British gardens. Conducted annually since 1979, volunteers spend one hour monitoring their gardens and logging bird visits.

Although House Sparrows and Starlings remain the most frequent garden visitors, the figures clearly show that populations of these species have undergone a catastrophic and unexplained decline since the first survey in 1979 with Sparrows in particular producing fewer chicks. Several factors have been suggested as contributing towards this decline, including predation from domestic cats (which have risen in numbers dramatically since the 70s to become the UK's favourite pet animal) and Magpies (now the UK's 12th most common UK bird with a population increase of 120% since 1979) Even the switch from lead to benzene in petrol has been suggested . It must be noted that it is unclear why these factors should affect the two species so disproportionately to other garden birds.

Another species showing cause for concern is the Song Thrush. Although numbers have rallied slightly in recent years a recent sudden drop in numbers saw it drop from the top 20 birds for the first time. The Song Thrush held number 7 in the table in 1979 and is now a Red Listed species after a decline of 34% since 1979. Population figures show strong regional variations, with Blue Tits now the second most common bird in Wales and House Sparrows doing well in Scotland, up from 5.2 per garden in 2004 to 5.8 per garden in 2005.

Also notable is the runaway success of the Woodpigeon (up 615%) and the Collared Dove (up 403.3%). Nick Bashford, Big Garden Birdwatch 2005 co-ordinator, puts their success down to their ability to remember accurately the gardens where people are most likely to put down food and their lack of natural predators. The success of the Collared Dove is all the more remarkable given that they were not recorded in the UK until 1955, having spread steadily across Europe from Asia.


House Sparrow

3.60 per garden

Down 64%

Starling

3.44 per garden

Down 77%

Blackbird

2.45 per garden

Up 39.5%

Blue Tit

2.29 per garden

Down 6%

Chaffinch

2.15 per garden

Down 28%

Wood Pigeon

1.53 per garden

Up 665%

Collared Dove

1.43 per garden

Up 411%

Robin

1.26 per garden

Down 37%

Great Tit

1.25 per garden

Up 39%

Goldfinch

1.16 per garden

Up % unknown

Woodland Birds

There has been a general decline in woodland species, particularly specialist birds such as Woodpeckers, which have evolved and adapted to fill an ecological niche. Some generalists are doing relatively well, with the Chaffinch in particular benefitting from a rise of 29% since 1970. Of the 33 woodland species studied, seventeen have declined in numbers since 1970 and sixteen have increased.

Suggested factors which may be influencing the decline of species such as the Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker (down 75%) and the Willow Tit (down 85%) are numerous and varied. These include a reduction in woodland management, falls in vertebrate resources, the impacts of intensive agriculture on woodland edges, climate change, intensified pressure from a burgeoning deer population and an increase in predation.

Farmland Birds

Corn Bunting

Numbers of farmland birds have decreased dramatically since the 1970s with a corresponding intensification of agriculture and increased use of pesticides and fertilisers. Strong regional variations in farmland bird populations serve to reinforce the contention that this is largely responsible for the population decline. For example, the Grey Partridge and Corn Bunting are all but extinct in the parts of the South West, North West and the West Midlands countryside which are subjected to intensive farming. Turtle Doves are also disappearing from South West England and Wales at an alarming rate due to the fact that 90% of farmland in these areas is now devoted to dairy and livestock farming.
Again the decline has been most pronounced in pecialistssuch as the Skylark (down 54% since 1970) and the Grey Partridge (down 86% since 1970). It now seems that farmland bird populations have stabilised since the mid-1990s after the large drop in numbers from the levels of the 1970s but it is a stark fact that of the nesting pairs of birds recorded in 1970 on average only four out of ten remain.

Intervention at a national and EU wide level shows encouraging signs of arresting the decline of farmland bird specialists with projects such as the Environmental Stewardship Scheme and the EU Common Agricultural Policy Entry Level Scheme playing their part. Recent changes in the CAP now reward farmers with subsidies for conservation and using ecologically friendly farming methods rather than the amount of food produced. As such, factors such as sewing cereals in the spring rather than winter, using less pesticides around field edges and planting wild bird cover which provides seeds in winter are now financially rewarded rather than indirectly penalised.

The Environmental Stewardship Scheme new Single payment now removes the incentive for farmers to produce more in order to maximise their subsidies and includes new rules setting basic standards such as hedgerow maintenance. It is now possible to get at least 0 a hectare by protecting ponds, providing bird habitats as well as replacing lost habitats such as wetlands and heather moorlands. Factors such as delaying the ploughing of fields until springtime has increased the breeding success of several farmland species, some of which are classified as threatened. The Winter Farmland Bird Survey found that bird populations either recovered faster or declined less rapidly over a ten-year period than comparable areas without stubble fields.

A controversial aspect of the new grant scheme is that shooting estates are now eligible to apply for subsidies in England. Landowners who plant game cover which gives food and shelter to both wild and game birds over the winter. Whilst bodies such as the Game Conservancy Trust have always claimed that shooting estates contribute substantially to conservation of landscape, habitat and wildlife, others disagree. The League Against Cruel Sports, for example, contends that taxpayers should not be subsidising the commercial shooting of animals and that the vast programme of killing potential predators on estates contradicts claims of encouraging bio-diversity.

One dark cloud on the horizon could be the possible effect of the widespread cultivation of GM crops. The fourth and final Farm Scale Evaluation commissioned by the British government showed that the growing of GM herbicide tolerant oilseed rape significantly reduced the seeds of broad-leaved weeds such as chickweed due to increased spraying. Many farmland birds are dependent on the seeds from this type of weed, especially in autumn and winter when other food sources are scarce. The Skylark, Tree Sparrow and Bullfinch are amongst the species for which these seeds are crucial.

With thanks to the BBC, RSPB and DEFRA.

For Journals please see our catalogue

Websites

Name

Address

Big Garden Birdwatch results

www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/results.aspx

British Trust For Ornithology surveys

www.bto.org/

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

www.rspb.org.uk/