Still not out of woods in halting bird decline

A long-term decline in farmland birds has been halted but not reversed, according to the latest key wildlife indicators published by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

By MICHAEL POLLITT

Rural affairs editor

A long-term decline in farmland birds has been halted but not reversed, according to the latest key wildlife indicators published by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs yesterday.

While the all-species indicator covering 113 species has increased by a tenth in the past 35 years, farmland and woodland birds are still a major concern.

Rocky Harris, of Defra's environmental and wildlife statistics division, said: “We are now concluding that the decline in farmland birds has now been halted but not reversed.”

He told a London briefing of signs of recovery after declines in the late 1980s and early 1990s of woodland bird species, which have actually increased by six per cent in the past 10 years.

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Dr Richard Gregory, of the RSPB's research section, said: “There are several farmland birds which we are quite concerned about including the yellow wagtail, the corn bunting, the grey partridge, the lapwing and the skylark.

“Despite a huge amount of effort to improve conservation on the ground and on farm, those birds have still had a resolute decline year-on-year.”

But, on the flipside, there are farmland birds which are doing really well. “The goldfinch is one bird which is recovering very nicely. The kestrel is another species which has been declining for a long time and has turned the corner,” he added. The numbers of jackdaws, reed bunting, wood pigeons and stock doves are improving, said Dr Gregory.

Dr David Noble, of the Thetford-based British Trust for Ornithology, said that although species like treesparrows were making a slow recovery, populations were still tiny.

There was still concern at the decline in farmland bird species including corn bunting, grey partridge and cornbunting since the 1970s. “The 35-year trend for yellow wagtail shows a decline of 66pc, grey partridge of 88pc, lapwing 57pc, skylark 57pc and tree sparrow 94pc in England,” he added.

Dr Gregory, said: “There are some encouraging signs here that the long-term, decline of farmland birds has stabilised. We have got a lot of positive measures in terms of environmental stewardship schemes but there is quite a big worry that the funding for agri-environment measure may not be maintained in the future.

“We are at a point of no return for farmland birds. If we are really to bring about a recovery in farmland birds, we have to really get behind all the agri-environment schemes.”

Dr Noble said that results from some of the new environment schemes, which only started last year, would not be seen in this latest data collected in the spring of 2005. “It will be very important over the next few years to see if environmental stewardship is working on farmland,” he added.

Other highlights noted that for wintering wetland birds, there has been very little change over the past 10 years. But in the past 35 years, the numbers had more than doubled. For example, wintering wader species including oystercatcher and curlew had risen by 67pc. The mute swan and pink-footed goose indicator has increased by 145pc.

The population sizes of breeding seabird species in the UK are 30pc higher than in 1970. There has been little change on average in the past 20 years, but some populations have decreased substantially in size, while others have increased.

Website: www.defra.gov.uk/news/2006/061019