UK bird populations continue to suffer very badly

BTO press release 7 November 2019

DEFRA has today published its latest report on how badly it is doing in conserving bird populations.

The graphs above show the individual values for each year of the aggregated population levels for groups of birds by habitat. So the dotted lines go up and down from year to year. The solid lines show the statistically smoothed trends (there is no smoothed trend for seabirds, and the graph above has the label for the green lines (woodland) missed off). You can pick and choose whether you look at the individual data points or the smoothed overall trends (and it’s good that both are presented so that one can eyeball the goodness of fit of one to the other).

I’m just looking at the graphs as above, and my eyesight tells me that:

  • the smoothed farmland bird index is at its lowest point ever (since 1970)
  • the smoothed woodland bird index (the green one that isn’t labelled) is at its lowest point ever (since 1970)
  • the seabird index (no smoothed line) is at or very close to its lowest point ever (since 1970)
  • the smoothed waterbird index is close to but slightly higher than its lowest point ever (since 1970)
  • the smoothed all birds index is at its lowest point ever (since 1970)

That is a terrible record for governments of all shades of colour, and in all parts of the UK, but there is nothing for the Coalition or Conservative governments, who have been running the show in England since 2010, to take from this utterly damning indictment of their conservation and agricultural policy.

It is possible to dive into the figures to find the odd piece of good news (many of which are there because of the efforts of, let’s be fair, mostly the RSPB on species such as Bittern) but if you are looking at the big picture then the big picture is as gloomy as a foggy, drizzly November day.

I look forward to all media channels quizzing the parties on their record of achievement and their plans for a glorious future. It’s a dire situation but one which is now largely ignored by politicians and the media.

I know that the BTO gets a lot of its funding from DEFRA, and I know that Andy Clements is on NE’s Board, but I was gobsmacked to receive the BTO press release on this subject claiming that …

… and in which Dr David Noble, Principal Ecologist at the BTO, said,

Despite a wide range of pressures continuing to affect many of our UK bird populations, and driving declines in many of our habitat specialists, there are a few positive stories where species could be responding to more nature-friendly management and spreading northward to suitable landscapes.

Just look at the farmland bird graph above and then read what the BTO say about it…

It will come as no surprise that our farmland birds are not doing very well at all but there are signs of recovery here too. The long-term picture is still pretty grim, with 62% of the species monitored, 19 in all, showing a decline. However, the short-term picture is more positive with 32% of farmland bird species showing an increase in their populations, 42% stable and 26% falling between 2012 and 2018.

Now look at the farmland bird graph again – it goes down, steadily down; down, down, down. And it’s at its lowest point ever. If more species have increased than decreased recently, then for the graph to fall, the decreases must have been quite a bit bigger decreases than the increases!

The trouble with bending over backwards to find a shred of good news is that you get into some ridiculous postures and just look foolish. Not even DEFRA, in their report, try as hard as the BTO to find good news here.

One wonders whether this report was ready to go a while ago but surely it must be just chance that it is published in a period of purdah when DEFRA could not comment on it. Just chance, surely (remember these are the data from 2018 not 2019!)? How handy to have the BTO around to put an unbelievable positive spin on these data.

As one of the people (one of thousands) who has collected the data that make up these graphs I’m beginning to wonder whether I should bother. I expect DEFRA not to give a damn about the decline in birds (and live in hope that that might change) but if the BTO can’t called a massive decline a massive decline then, honestly, what is the point?

NOTE: the BTO have offered to send me a Guest Blog on this subject (which is very nice of them).

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21 Replies to “UK bird populations continue to suffer very badly”

  1. I look forward to the BTO commentary.

    I'm always surprised at how NGOs and those who know better accept the 1970 baseline as a suitable measure for decline. If it were down to me, I'd reiterate every time that these were released that the populations were likely to be in a state of decimation (historically speaking) in 1970 as a result of the agricultural intensification of past decades. Is there a good reason for not doing so? I might just be less informed on the subject.

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    1. Max - thanks, but if it were up to you then you'd have to find a way of assembling the data for before 1970 which would be the challenge! These are annual changes in indices of several species, remember - they are only really available from 1964 (foundation of Common Birds Census after the 1962 winter) and it took a while for bird populations to recover from that massively hard winter. You can't go further back than the data.

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      1. Thanks Mark, the type of informed answer I expected!

        I think the issue is more one of a shifting baseline, in that a layperson/journalist looking at those graphs might think that the all-species index or the 100 index represents an inherently safe or healthy population level. In fact, the 1970 baseline is probably quite a poor position itself when compared to earlier decades.

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        1. Max - you are absolutely right about that. But 1970, although I can remember it as being at the time I really got the birding bug, is nearly 50 years ago. There isn't really any other taxon which has annual, UK-wide (provided you don't set ridiculously high standards) population figures aside from birds. And, without a time machine, one can't go back and collect the data. If thre were data back to 1919 the decline,as you say, would be even more dire. And if we had that graph for plants and invertebrates it would shock us to our cores.

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          1. Mark,

            You can go back to the 1970s for moths, thanks to the Rothamsted Research Centre (see https://insectsurvey.com/moth-data and the wonderful website with graphs galore, for individual species too).

            The State of Britain's Moths (not the micros) goes back to the 1970s and was last published in 2013 (so a bit out of date). There is interesting data here (obviously), but they have split the data between north and south Britain; and Britain as a whole. See Figure 1 here: https://insectsurvey.com/moth-state, when you select the 2013 report. For Britain, the 'angle of slope' of the line is just as devastating; and for southern Britain, it is horrendous (worse than dire).

            I doubt there is data for spiders (my main group) but as they are predators, and not just moths, assuming invertebrates in general are experiencing similar trends, then biodiversity is right at the cliff edge. Looking at declines in woodland birds (for example), I wouldn't mind betting invertebrate food prey is a substantial factor influencing their decline. You can plant all the trees you like, as DEFRA are claiming they will, but if there ain't the insects to eat them, then there ain't the birds to eat the insects!

            Richard

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  2. The interesting line is for 'all species', arguably stable since 1990. Why does this line differ so much from the other categories and what category are these birds in if they are not seabirds or wetland, woodland or farmland birds? To balance out the decreases in these categories the 'all species' index must include some birds that are doing pretty well. Perhaps that's the source of the BTO's mild optimism.

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  3. To answer my own question (having just looked it up), from the report I see there are 38 species in the all species index but not in the other indices, 'including birds of urban areas, heathlands, uplands, coasts and species with no strong habitat preferences (generalists)'

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    1. Ian - they make quite a difference don't they. I started thinking what they might be but didn't get very far, so I've looked them up too!

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      1. Yes, the Appendices are a good read - the percentages for each species in each of the habitat categories... and their weak/strong trend data. of course, stable (which includes a slight decline) is included in the percentage of species designated as NOT Declining, which does make it all look slightly 'Better'

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  4. The really steep period of decline in farmland birds was between 1975 and about 1985 but it is sobering - or rather extremely depressing - to see how much further the index has declined since the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992. It seems that recognising how bad things were and the importance of doing something about it, the creation of Biodiversity Action Plans and setting of Aichi targets have all counted for precious little. It really is time that politicians started to pay more than just lip service to this.

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    1. The start of the farmland birds steep rate of decline coincides with the confirmatory referendum that kept us in the EC and the CAP so that farmers were guaranteed a floor price for cereals. It also coincides with the replacement of the spring barley area with winter barley and the sudden popularity of winter oilseed rape, driven by the EC thirst for its own edible oils. Overwintering stubbles disappeared. There is an inflection to a lesser rate of decline around 1986-88 that coincides with setaside - remember that? The McSharry reforms followed, so did food safety regulation affecting access of birds to stored grain - the steady decline continues.

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  5. Lyn - no it's not Pheasants as non-natives are not included. Looking at the list it's an eclectic mix but attempting to categorise those that have increased there are some natural colonists such as Med Gull and Collared Dove, recovering raptors including Red Kite, Buzzard, Peregrine and Raven (an honorary raptor), and a few others that you'd have thought might have made it into the other indices - why is Cirl Bunting not a farmland bird, Firecrest not a woodland bird and Gadwall not a wetland bird? I wouldn't wish to underplay the alarming declines that have taken place, especially on farmland, but I do think the species that have colonised and recovered sometimes get rather overlooked.

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    1. Ian and Lyn - the NFU have suggested co-opting Pheasants onto the farmland bird index. I can't imagine why?

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  6. I do have sympathy with the BTO; it must be incredibly hard to explain these graphs with everyone asking why.

    On farmland birds, whenever I talk to a group of people about the farm I usually start by saying there’s no such thing as farmland birds – these are species that have adapted to man’s farming inefficiencies over centuries and that their decline is now a balancing act on our farmland efficiencies over a relative short period in time, I usually get their attention.

    This farm was bought because it wasn’t intensively farmed, it is like stepping back 100 years, most people think we have turned the clock back to a farm of the mid 19th century and are knee deep in yellowhammers, we haven’t and we don’t, much to their disappointment. I can lay a 1720 map over today’s farm and it’s pretty much the same. All we’ve done is hand the whole lot over to nature.

    I can’t show you PowerPoint slides or point out in person so I’ll briefly explain, I’m not going to explain how these people farmed or an agrological history lesson, if you want to know that get a good book, but, not one of the rewilding ones, or visit the Weald & Downland Museum.

    If I could gather you all up on the farm I could show you with a little imagination the architecture layout and the archeological structure and importance of barns, the relationship of hedgerows, lanes, fields, woods, coppicing, and ponds. Once you understand how these people probably farmed by hand up to the mid 1930s, you’ll see and understand why ‘farmland’ birds thrived so much. The real experts on farmland birds I’m afraid are long dead. It’s hard to imagine but every farm to a large degree looked like this.

    I’d also take the time to show you why I disagree with the planting of conifers, and I guarantee that all of you would change your opinion and hopefully question what personalities are telling you!

    The one question I get asked is what went wrong? It’s very easy to blame farmers, pesticides, and herbicides, hedge trimming, over grazing and corporate farming, it’s what humans do, and we look to foster blame in other quarters, other than our own. None have helped, but I usually answer the question – it’s you that’s to blame – well your historical ancestors.

    The two World Wars taught us a lesson, from the First we learnt that we can starve a nation into defeat, the second we learnt that it can apply to us, so much so, that after the end of hostilities the people of Briton demanded life style and class changes and a farming revolution gained momentum at an unpredicted speed.

    We can’t reverse what we have done, we can never go back, but we can do lots of stuff, we can leave the hedgerows alone, my personal favourite, leave the arable plants too, we can supplementary feed, to imitate the grain wastage that was so relevant, if you read the RSPBs literature on cirl bunting recovery, you’ll think they’ve reinvented the wheel, they haven’t they’re feeding a sedentary bird – food.
    Importantly we can just chill out, it doesn’t matter that hedges and verges looks a mess, arable weeds are not weeds, so let them grow in your fields.
    I hope when Dr Avery gives his response in the BTO, that it’s constructive, not a rant on about farmers, agrochemical companies etc. Every single one of us has an equal share in the rise and fall of farmland birds.

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    1. "Every single one of us has an equal share in the rise and fall of farmland birds".

      Well, yes but that rather banal observation does not actually take us very far forward in finding a solution. If we want to avoid losing birds and other wildlife from the countryside we need wide-scale policy change. Farmers (like other members of the community) vary in the extent to which they care about the fortunes of wildlife but all are attempting to run businesses within the overall economic, regulatory and subsidy (etc, etc) context in which they find themselves. Changes to that context can be made by government which can influence whether farming becomes more or less friendly to wildlife. The NFU and agribusiness corporations lobby hard against changes that favour nature and whether you call it 'ranting' or something else it is important that their influence over the future of the countryside is challenged.

      From what you say you have turned your farm over to nature and good for you if you have but how do you propose to get more farms to do that or even to just leave their hedges unkempt and the arable wild flowers to grow within their crops? You don't say how your own efforts stack up financially (to use the economic jargon) - are you subsidised with public funds? are you very wealthy or the beneficiary of a sugar-daddy? or does the farm make a profit without financial aid? If you want others to follow your approach it would surely be helpful to give us the detail on what you have done and how it has (or hasn't) worked rather than simply sneering all the time about everybody else being planks and idiots who need to be lined up against a wall and shot (as I recall you have previously suggested should happen to all employees of conservation NGOs).

      Mark has been generous in the past in allowing his critics space on his blog - perhaps you could persuade him to allow you a guest blog in which you can give a bit of detail on your remedy to the parlous state in which our wildlife finds itself?

      PS your suggestion that anyone in the conservation movement is advocating covering the countryside in conifer plantations is simply straw-manning.

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  7. Sadly I believe farmland birds will continue to decline.
    The only places I see more of them is where a relative small area of wild bird mixtures is sown.
    Really sad!y for whatever reason the RSPB seem to be unable to see this even when ironically it happens on a RSPB reserve.
    I guess everyone just thinks farmers will not do what is needed but surely if those in a position to put this point of view with payment included do not try then maybe they do not care enough.
    In life with everything if you do not try then you will never get a result.

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  8. How weird that when a possible idea to help farmland birds put forward such a lot of negative dislikes.
    Carry on burying your heads in the sand.
    The evidence that farmers will do things and it works is there but you choose to ignore it.
    The evidence is the Cirl Bunting project, we now thanks to farmers help have Cirl Buntings as far East as Weymouth and perhaps further.

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  9. It looks like you’re after an argument, I’m not prepared to get into one of these prolonged clichéd social media mind bogs, it’s not what I do, but I will give you answers.

    I can’t win this argument as I’m a bloke you’ve never heard of who is involved in a project that you just don’t have the faintest clue about. You and everyone else follow this blog with a messiah pied-piper loyalty and it’s like supporting a football team, you won’t hear a word against ‘the team’ or even express an opinion against its manager, so I’m standing in the away end.

    I don’t subscribe to your belief, I believe we should question what people and conservation organisations are doing and saying after all we pump millions into them. If you believe they should not get intensive critical scrutiny, then you are very naïve.

    I wrote about confirmatory biases – the entrenchment of ones’ beliefs that there’s only your side to an argument. Its monocular vision that blights all aspects of conservational progress.

    My response was about the decline of farmland, I actually don’t think it’s a decline, but a landscape rebalancing, to that I illustrated the farm’s history, and gave you a synopsis of events. Now your idea of what is or who is to blame may differ than mine, but as you have never attempted anything on this scale, you have no case to argue.

    If you think my ‘ banal ‘statement that we all are to share blame in the decline of farmland bird somehow excludes you, then you are delusional.

    This farm is a complete rewilding project, we do get the higher tier stewardship plan, and yes it’s privately funded, and yes we have a very successful business plan. No it doesn’t make profit because unlike organizations like the RSPB, Wildlife Trust etc., there are no salaries, pension funds and all 100% of ‘profits’ is pumped back into rewilding. Which is more than I can say of any conservation organization and individual.

    Could other people copy us, that's up to them? We are not a Knepp, who are a commercial brand of consumer conservation, which other farms and organisations would struggle hard financially to emulate.

    This farm is never going to be the solution to our wildlife problems, we are a satellite in the space of humanity, I might man the boundary barricades, but in the end we will be overrun.

    I disagree with lots of things I’m seeing now within our conservation hierarchy because I’m seeing how and where YOUR money is being wasted. It’s thoroughly depressing to be looking inward at this contented gravy-train apathy, knowing I can’t stop it.

    If you or others think I’m wrong, then prove I’m wrong– there some cheap arable farms for sale on the Isle of Wight, get your piggy-banks out, do something for conservation for a change, instead of sitting in front of a computer screen prevaricating your navel as armchair conservationists, bemoaning others to do more, and yes when you get this land you’ll have to learn too how to deal with these people who are charged with saving the UK wildlife – best of British!

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    1. It is a bit rich for you to state that I am looking for an argument when you have repeatedly come onto this site with drive-by accusations that just about everyone else is wrong about virtually everything. I would also suggest that you have some confirmation bias issues of your own. What makes you think that I exclude myself from the notion that we all somehow share blame in the decline of farmland birds, for example? I have certainly not said as much but it suits you to place me in a little box that your own prejudices have constructed for me.
      Anyone who has lived through the last fifty years or so can notice for themselves that there is less wildlife in our countryside now than there was during our youth - fewer birds, fewer wildflowers, fewer insects. You can call this a landscape rebalancing if you choose but whatever we call it many people are distressed by this loss. Do we just wring our hands and say that's just the way it is, though, or do we try to do something about it? If so what?
      As you say, as a member of the UK population I bear my share of the blame for the situation along with everyone else but what can I do? I exist and I don't propose to commit suicide. Of course, like anyone I can try to shop carefully and ethically and I can try to ensure that I avoid wasting the food I buy but that only has a very limited effect if millions of others carry on as before. As I said in my comment, I believe that we need the government to tilt the balance using the levers at its disposal - regulation, subsidy and tax for example - to change the way farmland is managed - and to shift consumer habits. For this to happen it is necessary to engage in debate and to challenge the position of those promoting the status quo or of even greater intensification of farming.
      It seems to me that although you state the changes that have occurred and continue to occur in the countryside are merely landscape rebalancing, you too care about the losses. I presume that is somehow part of the motivation behind your own rewilding project. It is not unreasonable to ask you how your project works financially because, like it or not, people do have to feed themselves and their families, pay their mortgages and so on and so most land-owners simply cannot afford to turn over their land to nature without some means of making it financially viable - i.e. ensuring that they can continue to pay their bills. Despite your airy assertion about farmland going cheap on the Isle of Wight, most of us do not have anything like the spare change available in our pockets to be able to buy a farm and turn it over to nature.
      I would be genuinely interested in hearing more about your project. If it is the success that you profess it to be then it is surely worthwhile taking the trouble to explain what you have done and what the effects have been so that others can emulate it? That would surely be a rather more positive approach than simply sniping from the sidelines with ill-founded assertions that everybody else is a fool, a hypocrite, a mindless pied-piper follower or a gravy-train rider. Whether you happen to think their efforts are misguided or not, those sorts of comments are ill-deserved by the many thousands of people, whether amateur or professional, who dedicate a large part of their lives to trying to do something positive to help stem the decline of wildlife in this country (and not just in front of their computer screens).
      That does not mean that I think the RSPB and other conservation organisations should be above criticism. If you read this blog regularly you must have seen that such criticism is actually a frequent feature of blog posts and in the comments. The RSPB does not get it right on all of its policies and of course there is a debate to be had about the correct balance between the fund-raising and administration side of the organisation and its operational side. Where this is the case it is important that this should be pointed out. I believe though that if the RSPB did not exist then wildlife in this country would be in a much more precarious position than it is. It is not and should not be the only game in town though and there is an important role for small organisations and individuals (including you!) to do things that involve taking risks or a nimbleness of feet that are not possible for a giant organisation bound by its charter, charity laws and similar constraints.

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