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The Big Picture
Farmland bird populations decline by half since 1970
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Birds that were once common across farmland in the UK have declined dramatically in recent years. Kathryn Clark reports

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Populations of grey partridge have declined by more than 90 per cent since 1970

Breeding populations of farmland birds in the UK are now less than half the size they were in 1970, according to figures from Defra.

The decline is due to changes in farming practices, particularly in the late 1970s and 1980s, which have resulted in the loss of suitable nesting and feeding habitats, and a reduction in available food.

The figures are part of a larger dataset covering farmland, woodland, seabird and water and wetland bird populations. A total of 130 native species of birds with populations of at least 500 breeding pairs are monitored annually by surveys undertaken mainly by volunteer experts.

In 2017, the overall native breeding wild bird population in the UK was 9 per cent lower than in 1970.

Of the different populations that are monitored each year, farmland birds have shown the most dramatic decline, falling by 56 per cent between 1970 and 2017. Populations of woodland birds have declined by 27 per cent in the same period, while seabird populations have declined by 22 per cent. There has been no significant change in the population of water and wetland birds.

The rate of decline in breeding farmland bird populations slowed between 2012 and 2017, with a 6 per cent overall decrease recorded between these years. Within the farmland bird population, some species are showing signs of short-term recovery – 32 per cent of the farmland species monitored increased between 2012 and 2017, 42 per cent showed little change, but 26 per cent declined.

The overall decline in farmland bird species has been driven mainly by falls in species that are restricted to, or highly dependent on, farmland habitats, such as the corn bunting, grey partridge, turtle dove and tree sparrow, all of which have declined by more than 90 per cent since 1970. In contrast, populations of two farmland specialist species – the stock dove and goldfinch – have more than doubled in the same period.

More generalist farmland bird species have also suffered, with the yellow wagtail population declining by 70 per cent since 1970, greenfinches by 60 per cent and kestrels by 46 per cent. However, populations of wood pigeons and jackdaws have more than doubled.

Although some farming practices are still having negative impacts on bird populations, many farmers are taking steps to support farmland bird species, whether by leaving over-wintered stubbles and planting wild bird crop covers to provide food in winter, or leaving uncropped margins on arable fields and managing hedgerows sympathetically.

Other bird species that have declined dramatically since 1970 include the capercaillie and willow tit, populations of which are now less than 10 per cent of what they were.

However, there is some good news, too. Populations of Cetti’s warbler, blackcap, buzzard, great spotted woodpecker, red kite and collared dove have increased several fold over the past 49 years.

David Noble, principal ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology, said: ‘Despite a wide range of pressures continuing to affect many of our UK bird populations, and driving declines in many of our habitat specialists, there are a few positive stories where species may be responding to more nature-friendly management.’

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