Bird Atlas – Farmland birds

Atlas coverPictures can get messages across better than words sometimes.

As one flicks through the pages of this Atlas one keeps seeing farmland species with shrinking distributions. But the key to truly appreciating the scale of what is happening to these familiar birds is to look at the maps of change of relative abundance.  Time after time we see maps showing contracting ranges and declining abundance right across the current range.  Farmland birds are draining from our landscapes, as have farmland plants and farmland insects before them and with them.

These maps of change of abundance are only possible because of decisions made by the team of the previous breeding Atlas over how to collect the data – because of their decisions we now have a much fuller picture than would otherwise be the case.

If I were at the RSPB I would be considering getting postcards made of the maps of change in abundance of Corn Bunting, Grey Partridge, Lapwing, Yellowhammer, Yellow Wagtail, Starling, Turtle Dove and a few other species and then make sure that every MP, every civil servant in Defra, every senior member of the National Farmers’ Union, every staff member of the Country Land and Business Association, every senior manager in every pesticide company and a few other people got one of those postcards every week.  I’d be surprised if all those folk are settling down to look at their brand new copies of this Atlas so maybe we ought to help them out.

Photo: Andreas Trepte, via Wikimedia commons
Photo: Andreas Trepte, via Wikimedia commons

The farmland bird story is well-established and well understood – some people have, perhaps, even got a bit bored by it.  But it’s shocking!  We, taxpayers, invest £3.3bn per annum in British farming through subsidies and environmental payments and yet the birds are bleeding from our countryside (following the plants and the insects).  Yes there are many wonderful farmers out there, and wonderful politicians, and wonderful policy makers but they aren’t producing a wonderful countryside for wildlife.

If these maps sit in a big book for birdwatchers then they will simply document a decline in wildlife and a failure in our collective ability to stem the losses of natural beauty from the fields around us.  These maps, and the rest of the data which underpin the farmland bird decline need to be used to provoke more and better government action.  If all the thousands of people who collected the data for this Atlas would write to their MPs (and Welsh AMs, Scottish MSPs and Northern Irish ALMs, not to mention the TDs in the Republic of Ireland and EU MEPs ) about what it shows, and expressing their dismay, then it would send a little ripple through the collective conscience of the House of Commons.  That wouldn’t be enough – but it would be something.

I’ll write to my MP next week and I’ll post my letter to him on this blog.  Please join me and do the same.  If you, like me, helped collect the data for the Atlas then help make those data make a difference.


8 Replies to “Bird Atlas – Farmland birds”

  1. I recently payed a visit to WWT Slimbridge. there were flocks and flocks of lapwings there. why can’t it be the same through the rest of the country?

  2. Well said Mark.

    It does make me wonder whether, if this is the outcome after years of CAP policy work and lobbying, a major rethink on strategy is needed.

    I suppose shaking a few people by the lapels might be a start…

  3. Love the idea of sending, say, a card a week to my MP. I know what his reaction will be: I’ll pass it the minister…..

  4. I for one await your example letter Mark, will be happy to steal it with pride, Mr O. Patterson MP will be hearing from me. Not that I expect too much of a reaction from someone who may not be the architect of this appalling situation but as someone who does epitomise Politicians general indifference to the problem. I’m not as succinct or as well structured in putting my arguments forward as you have done above but I am prepared to do whatever I can to help put the brakes on this alarming decline. The hard work of all the contributors and organisers the Bird Atlas now has to be leveraged to the max so all the inhabitants of this land can benefit.

  5. Don’t forget the postcards of Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Hobby, Jackdaw, Stock Dove, Whitethroat…. The more you delve into the Atlas the more you realise how complex the reasons for bird population changes are. The map of farmland birds on page 132 shows as many red and pink squares as brown and beige, so it’s not all bad news (red is good right?) The farming environment that was so good for many farmland birds in the 50s and 60s was created by accident, not because farmers were actively trying to encourage them. Now there are many of us trying our best to reverse the declines of some of these birds, but with mixed results. It’s just not that simple, and we are still learning how this can be done in the context of the modern farmed environment.

    1. Andy – it’s certainly not all bad news. Yes you are right that the Atlas shows gains as well as losses but as you must know, we have much more detailed information on the trends of these birds and the CBC/BBS shows overall big losses which continue right up to the present day. The Skylark is still found in most farmland squares but when you stand in a field you are likely to hear and see half as many as you used to. It’s amazing that the Atlas shows the changes that it does for species like this.

      A huge amount of effort has gone into preventing the farmed environment losing its wildlife and a huge amount of taxpayers’ money too – and yet the picture is dire. This is what is happening when we have spotted a problem, know its cause and claim to be dealing with it!

      I wish those farmers who are doing their bit all the best – things would be even worse if not for you. BGut there is no escaping the fact that the state of farmland wildlife is nowhere near as good as it could be and should be, given our state of knowledge and given the financial investment from the taxpayer.

  6. Well said Mark. The continuing declines in our farmland birds are appalling. There just aren’t enough conservation-minded famers pulling their weight. It’s no good if only an isolated few make the effort. Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire has consistently proved that you can make healthy profits whilst improving habitats for birds.

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