The latest (up to 2010) official figures for the UK Farmland Bird Index (and for that for England alone where things are just a tad worse) were published on Tuesday. They show a further decline in numbers of the suite of 19 farmland birds which brings the index to its lowest ever point. Take a walk in today’s countryside (or, more strictly, the countryside of summer 2010) and you will see and hear half the farmland birds that you would have done in 1970. In a generation we have removed millions of birds from the countryside around us and it’s still getting worse not better.
Why should we monitor bird populations at all? The official government release answers this question thus: ‘Bird populations have long been considered by scientists to provide a good indication of the broad state of wildlife because birds occupy a wide range of habitats, they tend to be near or at the top of food chains and there are considerable long-term data on changes in bird populations which help in the interpretation of shorter term fluctuations. Birds also have huge cultural importance and are viewed as a highly valued part of the UK’s natural environment by the general public.’. We could add, that the efforts of thousands of volunteers mean that there are annual figures available for birds which mean that we can have meaningful annual updates like this one.
Why have farmland birds declined? The official government release answers this question thus: ‘Changes in farming practices, such as the loss of mixed farming systems, the move from spring to autumn sowing, and increase pesticide use, have been demonstrated to have had adverse impacts on farmland birds such as Skylark and Grey Partridge, although other species such as Woodpigeon have benefitted. Three farmland specialists, Grey Partridge, Turtle Dove and Corn Bunting have declined by over 90 per cent relative to 1970 levels. By contrast two farmland specialists, Stock Dove and Goldfinch, have doubled, or nearly so, over the same period, illustrating how the pressures and responses to them varies between species.’ and thus ‘The major declines in some farmland birds have several known and potential causes. Many of the declines in bird populations have been caused by land management changes and intensification of farming that took place over a long period, resulting in habitat loss, a lack of suitable nesting habitat, and a reduction in available food sources.
Some farming practices can still have a negative impact on bird populations, but farmers can and do make a positive contribution. In particular a number of schemes are in place to improve environmental stewardship in farming, with some specifically designed to help stabilise farmland bird populations. The ongoing decline for some species may be additionally contributed to by other pressures, for example there is evidence of an impact for some species from weather effects, disease, and land development pressures. There are also an increasing numbers of studies finding evidence of a changing climate affecting birds here and during migration.’
Defra put this information prominently on their website but they didn’t press release it as it’s not really news is it? We know that wildlife is bleeding from the countryside, we know the reasons behind it and we know how to fix it. We just aren’t fixing it because government isn’t bothered. No news there then.
And Defra don’t say what they are doing about it or what they intend to do about it. There used to be Ministerial announcements and press conferences on this index but now it’s not news – although things continue to get worse.
There is, as far as I can see, no mention of these official government figures on the continued decline of life in the countryside on the websites of the NFU or the CLA. No news there either then.