Farmland birds reach lowest point since records began

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.




26 Replies to “Farmland birds reach lowest point since records began”

  1. Yes Mark, there is no justification for not publishing or announcing these worst ever figures. If they were properly publicised it might help to show how iniquitous and unjustified is Mr Osborne’s threat to the Birds and Habitats Directives. If this type of lack of Government and NFU etc, support for our wildlife continues, one has to start to wonder if there is not a total lack of any concern or regard for the natural environment and our wildlife in many, but not all, of the echelons of power. These echelons increasingly seem to view our wildlife as getting in their way. This may be a bit stong, but the prospects for wildlife are looking distinctly bleak right now under our current regime.

    1. Alan – thank you and I agree completely. Come back tomorrow for some comments from me along just those lines and on Monday for something I, and perhaps more people, am going to do about it.

  2. “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”.

    Its called the George Osborne syndrome Mark!

    1. Peter – thanks. How is it in Spain – the same, worse or better? Come back tomorrow for a bit of a round up on where I think we are and on monday for one thing to do about it.

  3. Can we just knock Defra or the people they employ to advise the farmers. As I have said before if farmers are only encouraged to plant Hawthorn in the hedge row it limits the species they will find nesting. Like most wind farm advisers all these people want is the money for doing a job which does not need the species after the work is completed and paid for.

  4. I was flicking through the ‘AA/Readers Digest Book of British Birds’ last night and this passage on farmland struck me:

    “When hedges are destroyed, to open the way for more efficient farming techniques, thousands of birds lose their nest-sites. When pesticides are sprayed on crops, the effect on birds can be even more disastrous. Farmland, for all its traditional chequered pattern of fields criss-crossed by winding lanes and hedges, is the fastest-changing habitat in Britain; and its birds must change too – or perish.”

    That was written in 1969. Very prophetic – the rot obviously set in a while back.

    The paragraph also highlights an interesting point in the last sentence. At the rate that the damage is being done, there’s no way that species can evolve quick enough to cope.

    1. Edward – thank you. That’s that large book with the Tawny Owl on the cover is it? I grew up with that book and must look it out and dip into it as you have done. Yes it’s a long process which has probably been going for centuries rather than decades but we can do better now, surely? And that doesn’t mean going back to the old days – it means finding a better future.

  5. This is turning out to be about the worst week in wildlife history. I run a small beef farm down in the south west, am always looking for ways to improve wildlife. I am in HLS but am happy to do more. Are there any specific actions / ideas that you have on how I could help?

    1. cowboy – that’s interesting that you are a farmer. I see why you call yourself cowboy now. There is always more that you could do but if you are in HLS you are certainly doing your bit and I thank you for it. I am glad that some of my taxes are going into your HLS payments and I genuinely wish you well. I’m sure local FWAG, NE and RSPB staff could give you much better advice than I could from my office in east Northants so I won’t even try. I agree it’s not a great week or month for wildlife – see tomorrow’s blog please! The thing I think you could do, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you say you are doing this alrady, is to spread the word with other farmers – starting with those who are most inclined to listen. I know that a farmer talking nature conservation to another farmer is worth a lot more than someone like me doing it or even someone who is much more plugged into the farming ethos. So I wouldn’t ask you to do anythong more, I’d thank you for what you are doing, but if you want to – have a word with some fellow farmers and encourage them to do a little bit more too. Thank you

  6. Yes, you’re absolutely right Mark. It is centuries, rather than decades. That was made only too clear to me when I visited Transylvania in the summer. It was a different world; the sort that Gilbert White would have experienced no doubt. I wonder how many farmers are proud to be caretakers of our countryside? I’d also be curious to know how many famers are aware of the goings-on at Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire.

    Indeed it is the volume with the Tawny Owl on it – beautiful illustrations.

  7. I love that book too, the illustrations are simply out of this world. Most of the natural history books I read are from the 30s-70s (I’m a bit of a throwback in some ways). I feel a need to educate myself and I like to do that in a context of history so I have an appreciation of how things have progressed (or not), how understanding developed around issues and our impact as it became readily apparent.

    In so many cases it’s just ignorance that causes issues, not outright lack of care. It does become a bit much when you have the facts in front of you but you choose to ignore them and instead of improving the situation you willfully go out of your way to erode the situation further just to be seen to be doing something.

    Whether it’s planning or CAP reform, the decisions that end up being arrived at make a mockery of the real situation where it’s been shown that a lot of small efforts can make huge differences if the strategy is right.

    I’d also like to say I’m firmly in support of farmers but I want my taxes to go towards stewardship and agri-environment measures that work rather than single farm payments which don’t proportionately help the farmers I most want to help.

    I look forward to the next couple of blogs on this.

  8. Whilst I’m not surprised by this I am staggered by the rate and amount of loss. And this shouldn’t be a bashing for farmers. I’ve had the privilege of carrying out spring surveys of 5 farms and even on those under HLS are struggling to attract Lapwing for example. In fact only one had 4 chicks. I think the problem is connectivity with surrounding farmland. Whilst islands of good habitat probably make a difference for small birds, the larger ones struggle to find sufficient foraging areas. Maybe HLS should be incentivised – get your neighbour in and we’ll pay you a bonus and you and your neighbour get an elevated payment. It’s what happens in business after all, but maybe it’s a bit too dynamic for Defra to administer?!

    1. Gert – thank you and you have hinted at one of the things that I think could work – but I will blog about it soon.

  9. Good point Gert – if a farm is environmentally-friendly, but surrounded by others that are not, it is effectively an oasis in a desert.

  10. Of course Mark to us “Oldies” none of this is a surprise. It is quite hard to get over just how numerous these farmland species were in my youth. During the sixties it was not uncommon in Suffolk to see flocks of 500 Turtle Doves gleaning the late summer harvest fields, autumn migrations of Tree Sparrows were counted in thousands and House Sparrows were still being destroyed because they were considered pests.

    Many working for Defra now are the next generation down from me and even small local increases are hailed as success.

    I am still an optimist – Governments often do not last long but there are now a growing number of farmers like Cowboy doing their bit.

    When speaking of NGOs recently we were concentrating on CEOs and their staff. We need to activate the millions of members. If they are serious about supporting nature conservation then let us persuade them to write to Osborne and Cameron. A few thousand letters and potential votes will surely be too much for them to ignore.

    1. Derek – indeed. I remember first coming to East Anglia as a school boy – I think 1971 – and seeing my first turtle dove somewhere near Cambridge and then getting a bit bored with them (I was young – forgive me) by the time we got to Ely because they were so, so common. It’s perfectly possible to spend a day in The Fens now (and I don’t mean November) and struggle to find one. Shifting baselines.

  11. Mark
    You are very critical of Defra’s efforts to halt the decline.
    Your quote
    ‘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.’
    Excellent – You know how to fix it. Let us imagine you are the Minister [now there is a thought] – let us understand Avery plan which would reverse the decline. – what would you do?

    1. Birdseye – yes I am critical of Defra because in Richard Benyon and Jim Paice they have two farmers who ought to be able to get a move on – but they haven’t. I’d take him to Loddington and Hope Farm where the GWCT and RSPB have shown how progress can be made for a start so that he doesn’t buy the NFU line that you have to choose food or nature. And i’d ask civil servants for the best ways that we could tweak ELS to ensure that it delivers more wilfdlife for all that public money. But your question also anticipates an article which I am finishing off for the Field which may give you a fuller answer to your question. What would your answer be? I’d be interested to know – and might pinch any good ideas for that article!

  12. Mark
    They have been to Loddington [both]. Is it question of tweaking? I asked what you would do – what are the tweaks?
    I would host a meeting to identify the current reasons for low uptake [RPA intransigence with inspections, lack of prescriptions that actually make a difference, flatten the bureaucracy, encourage a farmer debate to change mindset re wildlife, argue the facts with doubters re effects on productivity, encourage everyone to stop sniping and work together]. More farmland birds will only be delivered by winning the hearts and minds of farmers and no amount of sniping will make much difference. Whilst I am on my soap box without a single farm payment, farming would never be able to invest for the future. A graph of farming profitability shows that the last 20 years has been a real challenge and livestock still is. Profitable farms will spend money on wildlife

    1. Birdseye – thanks. I would, above all else, make ELS more effective – after all it’s a voluntary scheme. Farmers would have to choose from, say, three menus to get requisite points. There would be a very easy menu, an easy menu and a slightly challenging menu and you’d need a balanced meal to get the money. Beetle banks, skylark patches and conservation headlands might be in the last menu so hardly draconian. And they’ve both been to Hope Farm too – so what’s the excuse? We’re told that profitable farms will spend on wildlife but also that when things are profitable you’d be mad not to cash in with every hectare so it’s always tomorrow with some farmers. And, remember, I am contributing through SFP already. Tell a public service worker with pay freeze and postponed retirement age that that £bns go to farming with few environmental benefits and they might wonder why, as long as they still have a job, they are paying for this.

  13. Mark I would like to continue but have to go out – when things are profitable for the first time in 4 rotations is it wrong? I asked you how you win the hearts and minds? The comparison to public service workers is a apples and pears and you know it. You are not paying for it; you get cheap food. You cannot have it both ways.

  14. Hi Mark,very fair blog and comments,nothing new here of course as they have been declining for at least half a century.Probably the worst thing for farmland birds was the combination of the end of mixed farms which was inevitable as costs escalated and the scientists breeding such good varieties of winter cereals that they are more profitable than spring sown cereals.Hedge varieties do not really come into it as each area has always had one predominant species in their hedgerow.What everyone needs to understand is that although farmers use pesticides etc they only use what agricultural experts would say is the minimum needed as they are very expensive.This last thing is where it seems to farming community is the thing that is misunderstood.
    Of course now we have lots of other declining species or so it seems as today it is news that several species of sea ducks are declining on our shores.
    Things are now so bad with farmland birds I think the only way to increase them is to make it at least as profitable to do things on farms to increase numbers as it is to grow crops for human consumtion and this will never be popular with the public I doubt.Just like the public going for the best paid job they can get farmers grow what is most profitable as unpalatable as that may be for conservationists.We just have to pay a fair price for what is needed none of this we pay taxes,we happen to pay taxes for dozens of different things.We stump up money to lots of wildlife charities to do things for wildlife so what is the difference to doing it on a larger scale.

  15. This is indeed a very dark week for the UK environment; I’m beginning to wish I had gone away this week. The news that the Farmland Bird Index has further declined and that the trends are the same on land with ELS as they are without, is conclusive evidence that ELS is in need of a radical overhaul.

    As an agri-environment adviser based in an area of the North West dominated by grass based, intensive livestock farms, my experience of ELS is that it has been very successful in encouraging better hedgerow management, improved woodland edge habitat and preserving traditional farm buildings. In terms of addressing the in-field habitat and foraging requirements of farmland birds, ELS has achieved little.

    The incentives in place to encourage key options such as wild bird seed, pollen & nectar plots and over-wintered stubbles are insufficient. A very high proportion of farmers in my area, now no longer have the tackle required to establish these options and are heavily reliant on agricultural contractors for such tasks. This obviously increases cost and given the tight financial margins and time constraints that many intensive livestock farms are operating under, particularly on the smaller family run farms, means that these key options become very unattractive.

    This is also not helped by an utterly bonkers rule which means that the majority of key farmland bird options cannot be placed on land which has been grassland for more than 5 years. This rule applies regardless of the fact that the grassland in question may a monoculture of ryegrass, may receive over 300 kg/ha of Nitrogen and have been reseeded on a number of occasions in the last 5 years !

    If NE decides not to overhaul ELS then I would prefer to see the scheme scrapped with the money used to fund ELS diverted into the ailing HLS budget.

    Payment for results? Yes most definitely, although this spring has taught me that there would need to be some way of factoring problems that are outwith the farmers control such as the weather. A number of breeding wader sites I regularly advise on have really struggled with chick numbers this year, this is despite suitable grazing levels, large numbers of scrapes and a whole plethora of re-wetting structures. Drought conditions and weeks of desiccating dry winds stripped the land of moisture and the farmers in question could not have tried any harder.

  16. Slightly better Mark, but we are seeing marked declines as in Europe as a whole. In southern Spain there still exists ‘traditional’ farming, break crops etc which certainly encourage many seed-eaters and also benefits insectivores during the summer months.

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