How our comfortable society is killing birdlife

PUBLISHED: 07:41 20 February 2018 | UPDATED: 07:41 20 February 2018

Skylark: Its numbers will continue to fall drastically unless we take urgent action.

Skylark: Its numbers will continue to fall drastically unless we take urgent action.


Nature: Mike Toms points out that the shocking decline in once-familiar birds will continue unless we take action.

The figures are staggering: skylark has declined by 63%, turtle dove by 98% and tree sparrow by 96%. For many readers such figures will be well known; the decline of these once-familiar species has become the rallying call for conservation action, highlighting the impact that we have had on the landscapes and habitats on which such birds depend. But it is no longer the scale of these declines that worries me the most; it is the way in which we talk about them.

We use the past tense to describe the changes that have taken place over a few short decades. By doing so we fail to grasp that most of these declines are ongoing; they have not stopped and are not going to stop unless we make radical changes to how we live and how we use the land and its resources. The economic systems that we follow, together with society’s expectations of comfortable living, blind us to the impacts that we are having on the environment.

The period during which many of the biggest declines in farmland bird populations took place was from 1975 to 1987, and it is this period of agricultural intensification that is most often mentioned in the context of farmland bird decline. While those years of pronounced decline are an important period, what will happen over the next five years is what will really determine whether or not the fields of lowland England continue to echo with the song of skylark or the purring call of turtle dove. The fate of these birds is tied to the decisions that will be made over the coming months about the future of farming and how subsidies might be redirected for the provision of more environmental good.

It is essential that those who make such decisions should listen to what the researchers studying our bird populations have to say. They should look at the evidence and, additionally, listen to those who farm and manage the land – some of whom are leading the development of their own environmental schemes. Most of all they should understand that we are in the middle of a period of sustained biodiversity loss, rather than at its end.

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