Bird populations experiencing austerity in UK countryside


Defra has published the annual data on bird population trends.  Take a look at the graphs – everything is going to pot!
In Defra’s own words, two reasons for taking notice of these trends are as follows:
  • ‘Bird populations have long been considered to provide a good indication of the broad state of wildlife in the UK. This is because they occupy a wide range of habitats and respond to environmental pressures that also operate on other groups of wildlife.’
  • ‘Birds also have huge cultural importance and are highly valued as a part of the UK’s natural environment by the general public.’

I wouldn’t want to push the first argument too hard, but it is broadly true, or at least, it will often be broadly true.

So the message from this annual update, as from many other such updates, is that British wildlife is declining in abundance and we are all the poorer for it because we are depleting the cultural significance of our countryside.

Better get on with crafting our own farming support strategy then hadn’t we? What will we do to ensure that British farming, unhitched from the EU, and with a current contribution of £3bn per annum from the taxpayer to farmers, produces a steady and persistent increase in birds and other wildlife?

What do the manifestos say about this issue? Not much: Conservatives, Labour, Greens.

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  1. Phil Espin says:

    It would be more honest and illuminating for DEFRA to show the human population of the UK from the same index base year.

    • Maureen Ikanbear says:

      My Jimmy, always thought there should be one of them Notional Indicators or Kay Pee Ice to sum all this up. Then as long as the face stays smiley an' we don't go into the red then all would be good with the countryside. It was lapwings I've always been partial too but Jimmey was a Linnet man through and through.

      We never did work out how what fraction of a linnet evryone ought to have to make them happy though. Perhaps you could suggest that that Mrs Leadweight might adopt an Ikanbear Indicator so all these people don't keep wastin' their time with countin' all these other birds, not that there seem to be as many hen harriers as you'd expect like, when nobody takes no notice, I think she's in your county too, Mr Ravery. Perhaps if you see her when you're out buying your Linda McCartney sauasages (Our Kevin's Deidre cooked me some once. We had them with onions and Red Duke of York potatoes. I don't know why she couldn't get King Edwards like we always used to have. Fancy! That's our Kevin's Deidre for you) you could menshun it. Then everyone can spend their efforts on increasing linnets instead of arguing about the countryside or counting all these other birds and bees now. You tell her about those.

      And did you hear about how the Mole Vally District Council are treating wildlife considerashuns when these developers are making planning applications. I don't think it has anything to do with the moles though but if and Mrs Leedsum go for one of those frothy coffees (My Jimmy's moustache always looked a proper sight when he had capperchino), perhaps you could mention that too. I mean about the Moll Valley down in Berks, not my Jimmy's moustache. I don't think they're acting in accordance with their obligashuns. Is 'marmalade ministration' the right term following the guidelines Or is it up from here. Berks anyway.

      Our Kevin's Deidre is taking me to visit that Fyneshade Wood for the bank holiday. She says they haven't built those lodges after all. That's good but I arsked where all the bankers will go for their holiday now and she just larfed.

      Perhaps we might see some lapwings on the way. That would be nice. Or some Linnets. Just my share. And Jimmy's. My Jimmy loved linnets.

  2. HILARY MCKAY says:

    Not a bit surprised. I miss the lapwings and curlews myself, mind never saw a buzzard without going North so that's an improvement. Lovely number of small birds in the garden this year- nests and young ones everywhere.

    Just found a dead buzzard, sorry to see that.

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      I wonder how your buzzard died. Of course birds do die of natural causes but where birds of prey are concerned foul play is always a possibility, especially if on a shooting estate. The Birders Against Wildlife Crime website provides advice on what steps to take if you have grounds for suspecting a wildlife crime has taken place

      • HILARY MCKAY says:

        Thank you.
        It was under a hedge near a small road so suspect road kill. Too dead to post off for analysis (I have done that before). However here in N Derbyshire birds of prey don't do well.

  3. Dennis Ames says:

    Here is some thoughts.
    Three billion sounds a lot.
    Less than fifty pounds per person in UK sounds different.
    If less than fifty pounds per person in UK gives us a guaranteed good supply of reasonably priced food then it is a bargain.
    Cutting the three billion pounds handed to farmers would almost certainly be bad for wildlife and birds in particular in my opinion.
    After brexit it is very likely(it would probably be the case anyway)that farmland will be even more productive.
    I think the best solution all round would entail 95% of good agricultural land producing more while schemes were brought in to get the other 5% good for birds and wildlife.
    Conservationists bang on about getting rid of that three billion and risk even worse wildlife,remember almost no farmer(you cannot call these moor owners farmers)deliberately harms wildlife.

    • Mark says:

      Dennis - you can give me back my £50/year any time you like, thanks.

      And you misrepresent what conservationists say.

      And this would be a good time for you to have a go at explaining how everyone paying £50/year keeps food prices low - I don't think you've ever responded to that question.

      Have a good weekend!

      • Dennis Ames says:

        Mark,you might not like what I say but none of you conservationists seem to have any solution but if I suggest one as usual it causes sarcasm.
        Do conservationists really want a solution or even hope to make things better or do they really just want to keep on complaining while things get worse and worse because a awful lot of conservationists make money out of farmland birds disappearing.
        They seem incapable of bringing pressure to bear on getting schemes that would benefit farmland birds and for sure would do more good than pulling to pieces my ideas.Oh yes there is enough of you,over a million RSPB members.Always the excuse comes up about farmer power,nonsense there is nowhere near a million farmers.
        Have a nice last third of the month.
        You know very well that almost all the food produced in the gets subsidised in some way and so it is unfair to expect UK farmers to not get the same treatment.
        I did explain to you how in my opinion subsidies keep food prices lower donkey years ago when you were RSPB blogging but as usual we disagreed on farming matters,lets face it you do not want to have anyone prove that point whoever it was as it would take a big arrow from your bow.

        • Mark says:

          Dennis - I love what you say, it's just not very convincing!

          You're right that conservationists and consumers have had little impact on the shape of agri-environment schemes - that's why Brexit is an opportunity to get a much better countryside.

          The argument that because there are fewer farmers than RSPB members it can't be true that farmers have more power is ridiculous.

          It's not food that is subsidised, it's food producers, aka farmers. And you are welcome to explain how the £3bn makes food cheaper in the shops. If you reckon you explained it over six years ago then it might be time to do it again here.

          best wishes

          • Dennis Ames says:

            Mark a few more thoughts.
            I find it amusing that the Labour PM was described as giving more generous subsidy payments to farmers so I assume he thought it worthwhile(have we ever had a PM since of any party fit to tie his boots)
            Average farm size is approximately 286 acres which almost certainly means that the vast majority of these farmers are just ordinary family working farmers and not these money laden portrayed by many.
            I cannot understand Dennis - you can give me back my £50/year any time you like, thanks.
            I have not had any subsidy for about fifteen years and then it was only low hundreds per year for a scheme that we were begged to do but was in fact rubbish for birds but RSPB thought it would be great.
            Maybe it is the other way round and you need to send me some as when all my RSPB subs were paid I actually thought it was going to do good for birds not provide really top class pensions for those at the top of RSPB.
            Just like you always say about paying tax for farmers subsidies.I had no choice in the matter.
            Fact is about 13 billion pound of food thrown away by households each year,would that happen if food was not cheap.
            Fact is never in history going back century's has the family in UK had to spend as little on food in % terms of their wages/salary's as they do now.
            I still think my original thought of more production from 95% of good agricultural land and schemes brought in to help birds and wildlife is about as good as it is likely to get.If you or other conservationists have better ideas for goodness sake lets hear them because they seem well under wraps if there are any.
            I thought I originally put down some very simple thoughts and am very surprised you got so picky.
            You are far more intellectual than a mere farm worker turned small dairy farmer so you obviously know why withdrawing subsidies would put prices up.You are simply baiting me and would not agree with my ideas anyway.
            My guess is Clement Atlee if you researched would provide the answer.
            I am not repeating what I said to you well over 6 years ago.
            Have a nice week-end

          • Ernest Moss says:

            'I have not had any subsidy for about fifteen years and then it was only low hundreds per year for a scheme that we were begged to do'

            As a dairy farmer Dennis, you would have benefited greatly from milk intervention, which was nothing other than a subsidy.

            For much of the late 70's and 80's, dairy intervention was THE biggest single area of expenditure within the whole EU CAP budget. The value of milk intervention to a typical dairy farm is fairly well illustrated by the arrangements that were put in place in 2005 to compensate dairy farmers for the reduction in intervention rates. The SPS rate for English dairy farmers in 2005 was set at €245/ha (around £350/ha). Even at that rate many people still felt that this was below the value of intervention.

            You would have also benefitted greatly from the protections applied by tariffs on non-EU dairy imports - again a subsidy when all said and done.

            Little wonder that most sensible farmers were very keen to stay in the EU.

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      "...remember almost no farmer(you cannot call these moor owners farmers)deliberately harms wildlife."

      It would be shocking indeed if British farmers had set out deliberately to eliminate wildlife from the countryside but does anyone believe such a thing? Of course the steady depletion of birds, insects, wild flowers and other wildlife from the countryside was never a goal in itself for farmers but rather a secondary consequence of their vigorous pursuit of 'efficiency' but, whatever the motivation of farmers, the result is very clear as far as wildlife is concerned: an inexorable slide towards oblivion.

      The massive changes in British agriculture that have taken place over the last forty or fifty years and their unfortunate consequences for wildlife have undoubtedly been driven in large part by the subsidy systems that have operated over that time and if we care about halting the decline of wildlife it is essential that we look at how those subsidies operate. Leaving the EU provides an opportunity to do so and there are a variety of possible options ranging from replicating the existing EU system to abandoning subsidies altogether. In between those two ends of the spectrum we can look at how much is paid and what is expected from farmers in return and there is surely a strong case to be made for using the money to drive environmental improvements such as more wildlife, better water management and so on rather than simply as a means of funneling money through to the coffers of John Deere, Monsanto, Syngenta et al.

      • Dennis Ames says:

        Ernest,you may be right in your thoughts but I promise you all of us dairy farmers suffered far more from milk quotas than the small benefit you mention.
        I was always quite happy to rely on supply and demand to regulate price.
        I do not think subsidies would have made one iota of difference to our profit and loss.It may of course have meant that less efficient producers went out of dairy farming a bit earlier than they had to anyway,that is life in general in all things.
        Reason why,well we started up with very limited capitol in 1974 when calves were being given away because they had no value and proof of that is we sold a nice calf in market 50p of which half went on commission.
        I actually think if other countries did the same only lesser quality land should get subsidies and if the country wants benefits of more wildlife pay equivalent subsidy for loss of earnings from that crop area.

    • James Sherrill says:

      Three billion may sound like a lot of money but it is equal only to a small proportion of what the government spends on all forms of welfare. On unemployment, housing, family, income support, tax credits, personal social services and other benefits the government is spending about £108bn without any further obligations on the part of the recipients. We should not begrudge farmers what they get and recycle into local economies - they don't exist in economic isolation and have to produce what they do in competition with world prices while their input costs are set in the UK. This doesn't mean the present system should continue without reform. There is no need to continue payments to those who cause damage to the land, and the production of nutritionally valuable food should be incentivised. We don't need to subsidise the production of starch, or exports.

      • Jonathan Wallace says:

        That is a slightly strange argument James. First, the welfare system is available to everyone, including farmers and farm workers, who meet the relevant criteria such as financial hardship, disability, old age etc. It is misleading to suggest or imply that farm subsidies are just another form of welfare payment that simply give farmers a share of what everybody else is getting. It is also incorrect to suggest that there is no further obligation on recipients of welfare; with the exception of those who are deemed by law to be either too young (children) too old (pensioners) or too ill or physically handicapped (which has to be repeatedly proven) to work, every other recipient is expected to work and failure to do so results in benefits being cut or stopped.
        Secondly, even if there were some kind of equivalence between the welfare system and the subsidy payments made to farmers, you can surely not have failed to notice that there is enormous pressure being brought to reduce the overall welfare bill in this country. Perhaps we should turn your proposition around and ask why, if the poorest and weakest in society are facing cuts, farm subsidies should be shielded from them?
        You suggest that farm subsidy payments are beneficial to all as they get recycled into the local economy but it is debatable to what extent this is true - I would suggest that a great deal of the money ends up in the hands of multi-national corporations who supply the machinery and chemicals on which modern farming depends. Other industries can also claim to support local economies but when these industries (coal mining or cotton weaving, say) have found themselves uncompetitive in world markets they have been allowed to fail so we should at least ask why farming should be different and be propped up with public money.
        If as a society we do decide to maintain payments to farmers it seems to me that is hardly 'begrudging' to question the amounts in the current climate of austerity or, more particularly, to attach more strings to the payments. If the subsidy system can be redesigned to be far more effective at promoting wildlife- friendly farming and other 'public goods' then I personally am happy for some of my taxes to be used in that way. I am not happy to see my taxes used to fund a system that drives wildlife out of the countryside.

        • Fraser Cottington says:

          I couldn't have put it better myself Jonathan.
          It is amazing to me that birds once most common on 'farmed land' now have populations that are the most depleted.
          Perhaps some smart folks have already created it in some form, but if one was to overlay on the bird population graphs, the advent and increase of all types of pesticides and intensity of farming. What might we find?
          Seeing RSPB folks on BBC recently being asked to report the bad news, but I found it even more tasteless that the BBC interviewer had been instructed to say the "but there are winners too, tell us about them". Am I opposed to this fact, of course not, but such standpoints hold no water or relevance to native species populations and their declines.
          I visit SE Asia and find it fascinating how Tree Sparrows are so abundant, even in cities, yet here in the UK, as we all know their populations have been decimated. What chemicals and farming methods can we see that are absent over there?
          Is anyone who cares about and can bring about the national protection of habitats and birds truly listening? Will a Conservative Government rally to turn our avifauna's fortunes around? I remain highly cynical. But I wish we could find a means to present facts and have them both heard and acted upon without fear some divisive lying person, or body use their money and political influence to destroy any future for our birds and all the other wildlife along with it.

        • James Sherrill says:


          You might think that a slightly strange comment, but to quote Dr Avery: "Some readers of this blog don’t like the Pillar 1 income support payments being called income support payments – but that is what they are, and is what they are widely known as". He has made the point several times in his blog and I concur with his view.

          I did in fact exclude from the total I quoted the amounts for pensions, incapacity, disability and injury, which would have added another £149bn to the total (source: ONS). I have been in receipt of benefits for housing and unemployment, admittedly many years ago, but I didn't have to deliver anything to my fellow man or follow over 200 pages of BPS and NVZ guidance to receive them. My point was that the £3bn allocated to farm subsidies was a small proportion of the whole. It's about the same as unemployment benefit, and four times smaller than the amount we spend currently on foreign aid.

          I have indeed noticed the pressure to reduce the welfare bill and disagree with much of that. We should spend more, not less, on our people, and reprioritise what we spend on other things. It isn't as if there isn't enough money, there is too much squandered on projects like HS2, Hinkley, and giving money away to other countries that don't need it.

          Obviously a proportion of spending by farmers up in the hands of manufacturers, but machinery, seed and chemicals need distribution and servicing and these and a plethora of other services are typically provided locally. Furthermore, about one in ten jobs in England and Wales is in the food chain, and farmers are the prime producers in that chain.

          I voted to remain in the EU but if we are to leave it we have the opportunity to dump the one-size-fits-all mentality of the CAP. So if I were able to wave a wand I would enlarge and restructure the agri-environment subsidy system to favour all farmers producing what we need and want in all aspects that that entails, favour those currently disadvantaged by economies of scale, cease payments for merely owning land and introduce a separate scheme spanning all forms of conservation land-use, which would be open to non-profit landowners providing public benefit from their land. If this means top-slicing every other government budget allocation then so be it. Better still would be to force Google, Amazon, Facebook & Co. to pay their due taxes so we wouldn't have to raise any new money.

          • Jonathan Wallace says:

            James, I don't find it helpful to make comparisons with the welfare budget in arguments for or against farm subsidies but it appears that we do in fact agree on quite a lot:
            1) The provision of farm subsidies can be justified if it generates an overall benefit to society not just a top up of income for farmers (especially when the wealthiest, biggest landowners get the biggest top up).
            2) There is no reason to accept that farmers should receive public money with no obligations to be met in return. These obligations should be substantially in the form of managing the land in ways that are beneficial to society as a whole, including the promotion of public goods such as wildlife, flood prevention, water quality maintenance etc, rather than just an obligation to fill out reams of paperwork (but I am sorry - if you are going to receive large sums of public money you are inevitably going to have to do some form filling).
            3) There are undoubtedly savings that could be made in other areas of government spending that could be used to help pay for a farm subsidy system. Personally I would not make the overseas aid budget my main target for that. I would like to see us maintain levels of foreign aid spending but I would certainly be keen to ensure that such spending was used to benefit disadvantaged people around the world not to support arms sales to dubious regimes or finance vanity projects simply because they will provide contract opportunities for British businesses.
            4) I agree that multi-national corporations should be prevented from using artificial off-shore structures that enable them to avoid paying their fair share of tax. Unfortunately, I fear that the present government, if re-elected, will in all likelihood agree to a trade deal with the US that will make it easier for these companies to pay minimal tax.

  4. Lyn Ebbs says:

    I would like to see two more charts: one for birds of prey and another for pheasants and red grouse.

  5. Ian Carter says:

    Can we see the graph for 'all birds' which is not doing too badly since the early 1990s. Sometimes I think we subconsciously devalue birds that are doing very well - Collared Dove, Woodpigeon, some of the corvids. And we adapt to value more highly the species that are declining - Starling, House Sparrow for example. Many of the species doing well are generalists and that has become something of a dirty word in indicator-designing circles for some reason.

    • Phil Espin says:

      A graph for "birds like us" you mean Ian? Generalists than can adapt to changes that benefit them (and us). While leaving the species that don't suit our modern lifestyle to decline and go extinct. That is not my understanding of maintaining biodiversity.

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      I am happy that magpies, wood pigeons and collared doves are doing well, Ian, but your comment seems to suggest that we are in a zero-sum game in which the loss of yellowhammers is balanced out by the gain in wood pigeons, so to speak. Whilst some of the generalist species may have expanded in numbers in recent years, were any of them in any way threatened before the onset of the factors that have led to the decline of specialist species? I think not and the truth is that overall we have suffered a clear and overwhelming loss of biodiversity in the countryside. The success of wood pigeons and collared doves, whilst in itself, perfectly welcome, cannot seriously be taken as an indicator of the good health of our countryside.

  6. Haematopotamus says:

    Defra's habitat-based bird statistics actually show the overall relative abundance of GENERALIST and SPECIALIST species associated with each habitat. For woodland that includes generalist species such as blackbird and specialists such as woodlark, woodwarbler, lesser spotted woodpecker. If you look at the graph(s) for the latter group, then the general impression to be gained is that they are largely in free fall (with little prospect of a parachute).

    Birds can provide good indicators maily by virtue of being subject to huge recording effort, relatively easy to identify, count, track longevity and breeding success etc as well as having members associated with a range of habitats. They're much better used with a basket of other indicators though, particularly those which are more finicky and less mobile. The picture with moths and butterflies is even more stark.

    The main point of an indicator though (See those assorted flashing red lights on your dashboard?), should be to prompt or monitor informed action (Hey, Jeff. That's the 15th canary to have died this morning. You reckon we got a bad batch?). It wouldn't be true to say that there hasn't been any action but clearly what we're doing at the moment isn't up to snuff. (Jeff? Speak to me Jeff!).

    Apart from historical interest ( such numbers that they used to darken the sky), there isn't that much point to the existing Defra species indicators as they are presented. It would be much more informative to work out how much high quality habitat (patches of varying sizes and degrees of connection and condition) there should/will be in 2020 and 2050 say, and based on likely carrying capacities how widespread and how abundant key indicator species should be so that these targets can inform the meaningful evidence-ledactions and deliver the outcomes we as individuals, communities and hugely varied, competing interests should be striving for.

    That requires an enormous shift in our shared relationship with the natural environment, but it's one that should pay dividends for us, for landowners/managers, for communities, urban and rural areas and for birds, butterflies, bees, stick insects, other beasties, and other kingdoms too.
    Counting crows, craneflies and better suport for all the volunteer effort that goes into that, and the recording infrastructure provided by the national schemes and societies (such as BTO, Butterfly Conservation, BWARS, BSBI, BBS) et al, local natural history societies, local environmental record centres, the NBN and the many thousands of individuals and groups who record wildife in the UK, should be seen as vital. Their collectively making this data available, once validated and verified [Perhaps FoE will eventually get this bit right - The secret is to bang the rocks together, guys!], so that it is available both to inform local to national strategies to take us in the right direction and the decision making in relation to all the actions on the ground that take us along or increasingly away from that path, is hugely important. Sadly, the lack of understanding and appropriate, proportionate action by all previous governments has taken us far from where we could have been, but that's down to all of us but also - in part - on the failure of environmental/wildlfie NGOs to work effectively with each other and with other sectors.

    Will we doing any better by 2020 or just counting the dead canaries? (Jeff?)

    And if you'd rather read something to stir the soul - try this...

  7. Ian Carter says:

    Phil, yes I don't have a problem including species that have adapted to changes we have made. After all, many of the current suite of declining farmland birds we are now so concerned about have done just that in the past. I think the habitat-specific indicators are useful but surely the single mot useful indicator must be the one that includes all (native) species.

    • Phil Espin says:

      Ian I don't have a problem including them. It's giving them undue focus I think unhelpful. if you look at appendix A of the Defra report for farmland bird holds up at all you will see that the only reason the generalist index holds up is because of big increases in wood pigeons and jackdaws. Goldfinchand stock dove increases stop the specialist index looking even worse. The latter should give Songbird Survival pause for thought at least. It seems to me these indices are deeply unhelpful if they mask the real nature of what is going on.


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